Barack Obama — so much more than a “pragmatic liberal”

David Maraniss has written a biography of Barack Obama (of which I have read only excerpts) which shows that Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father, takes important liberties with the truth. But Maraniss apparently isn’t very upset that the president of the United States failed to write a truthful autobiography. Instead, he directs his ire against those who doubt claims about Obama’s life that Maraniss finds to be true. According to Maraniss, these people are “frauds and fabricators.”

Maraniss focuses mainly on those who insist that Obama was born outside of the United States and/or that he is a secret Muslim. I too find no merit in these claims. But, since those who push them have no power over my life or the nation’s fate, I’m more concerned about Obama’s failure to write the truth about his past and his dishonesty as president.

Moreover, Maraniss’ attack on Obama’s critics extends to those who, unlike Maraniss, don’t consider the president a pragmatic liberal politician. Of them, Maraniss has this to say: “Another group of right-wing doubters hold on to the notion that Obama is a closet socialist, some sort of Manchurian candidate, an idea that his every move as a pragmatic liberal politician over the past 16 years has utterly disproved.”

Note the lack of intellectual candor Maraniss displays here. First, he equates the claim that Obama is a closet socialist with the claim that he’s a Manchurian candidate. A Manchurian candidate is one who serves as the agent of a foreign government. A closet socialist is one who has a socialist vision, and cautiously seeks to advance it without proclaiming himself a socialist. I think it’s absurd to view Obama as a Manchurian candidate, but I consider him a closet socialist.

Second, though Maraniss offers a detailed refutation of claims that Obama was born outside the U.S. and is a Muslim, he offers no evidence that Obama isn’t a closet socialist. He merely asserts that Obama’s “every move as a pragmatic liberal politician over the past 16 years has utterly disproved” this.

I can’t tell whether Maraniss is intentionally fudging or just guilty of imprecise writing. Every move Obama has made as a pragmatic liberal would be some evidence that he’s not a socialist. But that’s not the same thing as saying that every move Obama has made in the past 16 years has been that of a pragmatic liberal. Nor would such a statement be anywhere close to the truth.

Consider Obama’s record in the U.S. Senate. He was rated by one prominent index as the most liberal member of that body during his tenure. That’s not the record of a pragmatic liberal. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, served with Obama. Since Obama’s voting record was arguably to the left of Sanders’, it is hardly fraudulent to suggest that Obama is a socialist.

Before entering the U.S. Senate, Obama served in the Illinois state Senate. As Stanley Kurtz has shown, although the future president worked with Republicans at times, the substantive thrust of his work in Springfield was quite consistent with the contemporary socialist agenda. Thus, Obama pushed for redistributionist social welfare legislation. Working with a socialist colleague, Quentin Young, Obama repeatedly proposed a state constitutional amendment mandating universal health care. And he openly favored a single payer system.

Two political scientists who graphed the legislation Obama sponsored as a state senator found that the bar for social welfare legislation towered over every other category. The result was similar for legislation that Obama co-sponsored. The two professors concluded that other than social welfare and a sprinkling of government regulation, Obama devoted very little effort to most policy areas. This is how we would expect a socialist state legislator to behave.

In 2000, Obama ran for Congress against left-wing incumbent Bobby Rush. In this race, Obama received the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) (again I rely here on Stanley Kurtz). Clearly, it viewed Obama’s “moves” as other than those of a “pragmatic liberal.” And for the reasons stated above, they were right.

Furthermore, if we look back four years earlier, still within Maraniss’ 16 year window, we find that Obama joined the New Party, which was deeply hostile to the mainstream of the Democratic party and even to American capitalism.

What about Obama’s presidency? At times, Obama has been pragmatic and at times he’s pushed liberal solutions rather than more socialistic ones. But on the big domestic and economic issues, he’s rarely behaved like a pragmatic liberal.

On health care, for example, Obama eschewed a purely socialist solution even though he clearly favors one, so that he could pass something that would move the ball leftward. That sounds like a closet socialist, as opposed to a reckless one, to me.

One can also view this as pragmatic liberalism I suppose, except that a pragmatic liberal probably would have backed off from pushing Obamacare into law, given its obvious unpopularity and the political price the legislation was always likely to exact. The fact that Obama didn’t back off shows the degree of his ideological commitment and tends to support the view that he’s a radical, not a pragmatic liberal.

Consider too Obama’s recent decision to effectively override immigration law for a huge class of illegal aliens — those who were brought here as children by their parents. This decision may have been in part a pragmatic quest for Hispanic votes, but it isn’t the move of a traditional liberal politician. Rather, it’s the move of an ideologue.

There’s much more that can be said on this subject, and I may be saying some of it in the coming days. For now, I hope I have shown that Maraniss is wrong to equate those who claim Obama is a closet socialist with those who persist in questioning his nationality and/or religion. And I hope I have shown that Maraniss is too quick to dismiss the first of these claims.

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