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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s “Third Way”

Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on April 21, 2009.
At The New Republic yesterday, Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber undertook the latest effort to define “Obamaism,” and concluded that the president represents a sort of hybrid liberalism that reflects the market-friendly attitude of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats tempered by a more traditional commitment to equality:

Like the New Democrats who ultimately shaped the Clinton administration’s agenda, Obama has a deep respect for the market and wants to minimize the state’s footprint on it. He has little interest in fixing prices or rationing goods or reversing free-trade agreements. But, while he basically shares the New Democrats’ instincts, he rejects their conclusions. Reacting against the overweening statism of their liberal ancestors, many New Democrats came to believe that if government largely got out of the way and let markets work properly, the natural result would be widely shared prosperity. You only need to view the extent of Obama’s domestic agenda to know he doesn’t agree.

They go on to talk about the Obamaite tendency to “nudge” or “harness” market forces to accomplish progressive means, instead of relying on direct government action, as reflected in both their banking and health care policies.
While I generally agree with their take on “Obamaism,” I do question, as a veteran of the whole New Democratic thing, Foer and Scheiber’s retroactive take on that ideology, which they describe as based on the belief that “if government largely got out of the way and let markets work properly, the natural result would be widely shared prosperity.” I don’t think New Democrats were ever as laissez-faire oriented as they describe it.
The closest anyone ever came to an ideological definition for the New Democratic “Third Way” was probably the 1996 Progressive Policy Institute document called “The New Progressive Declaration,” a self-conscious manifesto for the reform movement that was then sweeping through center-left parties all over the world. Here’s that document’s key principle when it comes to the fundamental relationship of markets to government and society:

The first cornerstone–the promise of equal opportunity for all and special privilege for none–has animated generations of American leaders and has attracted millions of immigrants to our shores. It is the ideal of a society in which individuals earn their rewards through their own talents and effort within a system of fair and open rules. It recognizes that there is no invisible hand that creates equal opportunity; it is a conscious social achievement that requires affirmative acts: removing discriminatory barriers, providing meaningful arenas for self-improvement, a commitment to public investment, and a rejection of special-interest subsidies that give the influential a leg up.

Equal opportunity as a “conscious social achievement that requires affirmative acts” doesn’t quite sound like getting government out of the way to let markets work their magic. And for all the talk about Obama’s agenda transcending that of his Clintonian predecessors, some of his signature progressive agenda items, like a market-based approach to universal health coverage and a cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon emissions, have been advocated by serious New Democrat types for years, along with a strong commitment to progressive tax rates.
That’s not to say that Obama is today merely echoing what the Clintonians were saying a decade or so ago. The real difference, I would argue, was not any New Democratic lack of interest in equality or public-sector activism, but rather a hostility to regulation based on a sense of triumphalism about technology and globalization as wholly positive developments, and a conviction that “information age” progressivism needed to rethink the social bargains associated with “industrial age” progressivism. It’s safe to say that New Democrats were irrationally exuberent about the economic trends of the 1990s, though not entirely wrong, either.
In general, I’d say the more we learn about Barack Obama’s domestic ideology, the more it looks like a “third way” progressivism chastened by the economic experiences of the last decade and yoked to a much firmer commitment to the necesssity of maintaining some of the “old” social bargains and regulatory practices of the New Deal and Great Society eras. And in international relations, it’s even more obvious that Obama represents a liberalism chastened by an Iraq War that so many Clintonians embraced, however tentatively or fleetingly.
As Foer and Scheiber conclude, Obama may find the elusive “third way” that Clinton “grasped for a decade ago,” whether or not his political thinking acquires a distinctive label or is articulated in books and manifestos. Right now most progressives would settle for success in sheparding America throught the present crisis, and in giving progressive governance a fresh chance.

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