What change does Obama believe in?
It’s a relatively small thing, really, a fix to the calculation of cost-of-living benefits that would have helped save Social Security.
But President Barack Obama’s decision to drop the reform from his proposed budget hints at a bigger question: What does he believe in enough to really fight for?
To hear him in 2009, you would have thought that safeguarding Social Security was one such goal. “To preserve our long-term fiscal health, we must also address the growing costs in Medicare and Social Security,” he said.
In 2010, he was even more determined: “Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we’ll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office. More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue to skyrocket. … I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans.”
Now the winds have shifted — his party wants to woo older voters by promising richer benefits, not reform — and Obama has moved on, too. Someone else will have to fix Social Security.
His turnabout on foreign policy has been even more dizzying. Three years ago, he was promising to support democracy movements throughout the Middle East and protect their advocates from government violence.
“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries,” he said in March 2011. “The United States of America is different.” In Libya, he said, “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
He was lyrical on the moral imperative of U.S. involvement. “I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms. … [W]herever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.”
By fall of last year, Obama had formulated a different doctrine, perhaps to explain why the United States was a bystander to slaughter and mass graves in Syria.
The United States had core interests, he said, including “the free flow of energy from the region to the world.” But “democracy and human rights and open markets” were not among them, though they continued to be things the United States looked upon favorably. Syria, he told the American people in September, was “someone else’s civil war.”
Which of these world views represented the real Obama? Did either of them? Did the president really once believe that the United States could no longer kick the can down the road on entitlement reform?
Defenders would say that his foreign policy is smartly situational, not inconsistent, and that he’s done his bit for entitlement reform with cost-bending measures in “Obamacare.”
Obama has consistently supported some policies throughout his presidency: higher taxes on the rich; more money for education, infrastructure, research and renewable energy; health insurance for all Americans. These are, for the most part, sensible goals that a Republican leader would not have favored or prioritized.
They are also generic Democratic Party inclinations. Searching beyond those for Obama’s inner core, questioning the connection between his eloquence and his conviction — these are old sports, for right and left. Just as Sarah Palin famously mocked “that hopey, changey stuff,” so a left-leaning political science professor, Adolph Reed Jr., can bemoan Obama’s “triumph of image and identity over content.”
But if, as Reed recently argued in Harper’s Magazine, Obama is “an unexceptional neoliberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation,” why do neoliberal Democrats feel disappointed, too?
According to the leftist critique, for example, Obama is carrying on the Clintonian, pro-trade agenda, pursuing ambitious deals with European and Pacific countries. But how much does he care? He recently sent to China, as U.S. ambassador, the pro-trade Sen. Max Baucus, who might have helped win congressional approval for the deals.
Why? Democrats wanted to appoint a replacement to the seat that Baucus had announced he would give up in 2015, get a head start on the campaign and marginally improve their chances of holding their Senate majority.
Which points to one possible clue: There has always been another election looming. In 2011, Obama cold-shouldered the fiscal commission he himself had appointed; Democrats feared that embracing its recommendations could hurt in 2012. Push trade or Social Security reform now, and Democrats might lose the Senate.
Any politician wants to win the next race. Whatever compromises he has to make, he can tell himself they’re preferable to having no power at all.
But after November, the last election — the last excuse — will be past. You wonder whether Obama will wake up then and try to remember what, exactly, he came here to accomplish.
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.