For all the overheated talk about how far to the left Barack Obama is—for all that he has been called a socialist and even accused of having sympathies with the Weather Underground—the truth is that he isn’t a particularly liberal President.
It was probably inevitable that Obama would disappoint the high hopes of his progressive base when the realities of governing forced him to compromise. But the fact is that Obama has never been all that liberal. During the primaries a group called Political Compass, which places politicians on a political spectrum on the basis of how they vote and what they say, listed Obama as a moderately authoritarian centrist—far to the right of people like Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich.
In fact, as David Rieff points out, in most European countries Obama would be in the center of the political spectrum. He is liberal only in comparison with people like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Only the fact that America is as a whole substantially more conservative that most western countries makes Obama seem liberal at all. The truth is that Obama in many ways isn’t that far to the left of Ronald Reagan, whom he repeatedly praised during the campaign.
Consider Obama’s stance on social issues. He doesn’t support same-sex marriage, and as President has not only backed off his promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, but has even defended its questionable constitutionality. Nor does he support legalizing marijuana, although he admits to having used it when he was younger.
Or consider his stance on civil liberties. Although as a candidate Obama was critical of the Bush administration’s assertion of broad executive powers, as President he has made the same sweeping use of the state secrets privilege that Bush did. And although Obama moved to close the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay, as Glenn Greenwald argues he seems to have relocated the detention program to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, telling a federal judge in February that detainees there had no legal right to challenge their imprisonment. Most strikingly, Obama has said he wants the authority to detain people indefinitely without charging them with any crime—a power which his White House Counsel admitted in the New Yorker would be a sharp departure from the American legal tradition.
If this is a radical agenda, it’s not a liberal one.