Much of the American right is convinced, at least rhetorically, that Barack Obama is something of a radical — a Marxist, a commie — intent on fundamentally changing American society in keeping with his far-left vision for the country. Despite all evidence suggesting the opposite is true, that he is a centrist conciliator more interested in aligning himself with the establishment consensus than overthrowing it, a similar phenomenon can be found on the left, with Daily Kos diarists, single-payer advocates and others having convinced themselves that the same guy responsible for ramping up U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fearmongering about a non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons program and regularly proclaiming his admiration for Ronald Reagan, is secretly — deep down inside — One Of Them: a liberal, a progressive, the second coming of FDR.
The reason for this isn’t so hard to understand: Democratic and Republican partisans, respectively, want — need — to believe that their votes matter, that there truly are meaningful differences between the parties, that they aren’t merely useful idiots for those in power. That Obama is extending the Bush administration’s record rather than breaking with it is no matter; those on the left can take solace in small but supposedly signal victories — that their guy speaks in complete sentences, favors stem cell research, doesn’t seem to enjoy bashing The Gays so much (even as he maintains nearly all the modes of state-enforced discrimination) — while those on the right can point to supposed “radicals” like former green jobs czar Van Jones and Obama’s preferences in leafy green vegetables (no, seriously) to convince themselves the president is one of them liberal ivory-tower types bent on destroying the nuclear family and America’s defenses. Such is politics.
But as Reason’s Jesse Walker writes, “Radicals tear down centers of power.” Obama, on the other hand, when “faced with a crumbling institution, his first instinct is to prop it up”:
That was most obviously true with the bailouts, a series of corporate preservation programs that began before he took office and have only increased since then. Candidate Obama voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the 2008 bailout for failing financial institutions, and he personally intervened to urge skeptical liberals to support it. After Congress refused to authorize a bailout of the car companies, Obama followed George W. Bush in ignoring the plain language of the law and funneling funds to them anyway. Like Bush before him, Obama took advantage of such moments to adjust the institutional relationship between these nominally private businesses and the state: firing the head of General Motors, urging the company to consolidate brands, pushing for new controls on Wall Street pay. But the institutions themselves were preserved, in some cases enriched. The radical thing to do would have been to let them collapse.