Clift: Obama's Progressive Moment

The American people like President Obama and they trust him more than they do the multitude of plans and bailouts that he has proposed. The gap so far is manageable, but Obama could find his popularity slowly eroding if the hemorrhaging on Wall Street and Main Street doesn't stop. Seven weeks isn't time enough to judge, but that hasn't stopped the right-wing hecklers from hauling out all the standard arguments against big government and tax-and-spend Democrats. Where were they when President George W. Bush was squandering the budget surplus he inherited and buying off the insurance companies with big subsidies to support his Medicare prescription plan?

Obama has two agendas—the one he ran on, and the one that's been forced on him. He doesn't want to give up campaign pledges he believes will transform the country in a positive and necessary way. And he has to deal with the financial collapse that he inherited. There are four pieces to the administration's economic recovery plan: the stimulus package, the bank bailouts, the mortgage-recovery package and a new set of financial regulations. So far, Obama is one for four with the stimulus package signed into law—not enough to stem the crisis.

There's a lot of guesswork in figuring out what to do, and the public is more willing than the cable-news chatterers to give Obama room to experiment. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama should focus on the economy and forget his wish list of investments in health care, energy and education until after the economy is back on a stronger footing. I'm in the camp of do it all while there's political capital to spend. That's the road Obama has taken, capitalizing on not only the traditional honeymoon of a new president but on the seismic transformation in American politics. After three decades of what John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress, calls the Reagan-Bush agenda of limited government, minimal regulation and traditional values, a majority of Americans now favor progressive ideas and goals, from green energy to universal health care. In a study released this week, the center found the same progressive attitudes extend to the international arena with the American public "far more interested in restoring the country's image abroad, fighting climate change and pursuing security through diplomacy, alliances and international institutions than … the sole projection of military might."

In football parlance, Obama is flooding the zone. Republicans don't know where to start to counter Obama and they've gotten themselves all bollixed up defending Rush Limbaugh's stated desire that he would like to see Obama fail. Limbaugh is leading the conservative howls about socialism, a rant that goes back to the 1930s and was road-tested by Sarah Pallin and Joe the Plumber in the last presidential election. Calling someone a liberal used to do the trick for the GOP, conveying all the baggage of the '60s and '70s on taxes, race, Vietnam and the culture wars. Since that word has lost much of its sting, the GOP has begun reaching for the socialist label. Even so, twice as many voters call themselves conservative as opposed to liberal—a reminder that the conservative world view has residual strength despite the trashing it has taken the last eight years. Liberals still have plenty of work to do, and if they want to be a governing majority for the foreseeable future, relabeling themselves as progressives is part of the task.

Obama calls himself a progressive, as does Hillary Clinton. In an effort to get away from the standard left-right, liberal-conservative paradigm, the center in its study divided voters along a five-point scale of ideology offering a wider choice of labels. With that breakdown, 34 percent of the country self-identifies as conservative, 29 percent as moderate, 15 percent as liberal, 16 percent as progressive and 2 percent as libertarian. Millennials—those born after 1978—are more progressive than earlier generations and there will be 64 million of them in the electorate when Obama runs for reelection. After asking moderates which way they leaned, the center found the nation "evenly split in its stated political identity but decidedly center-left in its policy orientation," a trend that scholars John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira predict will become more pronounced because of demographics. Democrats do better with groups that are growing (young people, minorities, Hispanics, professionals); Republicans do better with groups that are declining (white working-class and rural voters).

Since Republicans are banking on Obama failing the way Jimmy Carter did, it is critical for the president to get his economic policies right. Knowing critics are ready to pounce, the administration is dispatching Government Accountability Office inspectors to every state. "They're putting pressure on us, and they should," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday. "For us, it's a big test." It's one thing for government to fail under Republicans dedicated to reducing its influence, but for those who believe in government as a positive force, this is a defining time. Obama's performance will shape attitudes for good or for ill toward Washington, for a generation, about what is possible.