Strong opinions, weakly held

How we label politicians

When intellectually honest conservatives criticize Barack Obama, they say that he’s the most liberal Democratic nominee since 1972. (The dishonest ones call him a radical or a socialist or other silly things, but they’re not worth arguing with.) At the same time, people on the left argue that he’s not a “real progressive” and warn their fellow liberals that they should lower their expectations about what he wants to accomplish in office.

Critics on both sides can be right simply because there’s a lot of space to occupy between them. But I think that the real explanation is that evaluating a politician only by their ideology (left versus right) is insufficient. I think they must also be rated on a scale that ranges from “pragmatic” to “ideological”. A pragmatist bases their actions on what is achievable and which problems need to be solved. An ideologue sets their agenda to service their ideology.

My guess is that if you plotted Obama’s views, you’d find him on the leftward end of the ideological spectrum. I think he’s a genuine liberal. Obama’s philosophy of how to govern, though, is pegged way toward the pragmatic end of the scale.

I think this is the proper approach for a President. I mention the Overton window a lot. It argues that there’s a range of ideas that are politically acceptable at any one time, and describes how public opinion can be changed to move the window to make previously excluded ideas acceptable.

A President who governs in an ideological fashion will most likely spend their time trying to implement policies outside the window. Those policies will either not pass, or they’ll eventually hurt the President’s party politically. Politicians who ignore the Overton window tend to lie a lot. Since their policies are untenable, they’re forced to misrepresent them as policies that people can accept. The Bush administration has been a classic example of this style of government.

On the other hand, a President who governs with the window in mind can bring about change that stands for decades. I think this is Obama’s plan. If you listen to his speeches, or some of the other things he’s said, he makes it clear that his goal is to build a wide consensus around policies that move toward the end state he’d like to see. He’s aware that relying on the courts to bring about change can lead to resentment and hinder progress, and he knows that policies that win by narrow majorities will not stand the test of time. He seems OK with narrowing his ambitions to increase the durability of his ideas.

If Obama is elected, it’ll be interesting to see whether he follows this path. From what he’s said, I suspect that he will, but nobody knows how a President will govern. In any case, I think that an Obama Presidency would not feel as liberal as many conservatives expect him to be, and I suspect that many liberals who Obama would agree with in the abstract will be disappointed in the specific policies he works to enact. At the same time, if Obama effectively pursues his philosophy, he could lay the foundation for a long lasting shift toward more progressive government.


  1. Great post! I have heard friends and family on both sides of the spectrum worried that Obama is too far one way or not enough the other way in his views. If elected, I think he’s going to surprise them all at how “centrist” he turns out.

  2. What concerns me the most about an Obama Presidency is that he’ll have a majority House and Senate and may very well have a filibuster proof super majority in the Senate.

    In many cases what the public may accept and what the government will be able to pass are going to be wildly different. It will indeed be an interesting time. If Obama, Pelosi and Reid do a good job the Democrats could be in power for a decade or two. If they try and go overboard, they may see another wiplash like ’94 (though I doubt it since the R’s aren’t nearly as strong now and have no real vision any longer).

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