Why Barack Obama Will Be a More Effective Liberal in His Second Term

It's not because he'd move far to the left -- it's because he now knows how and when to pull the levers of power in Washington.


At the Democratic National Convention in September, Michelle Obama told the crowd, "Being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are."

Many Americans have spent the past four years waiting for that reveal, and now that Barack Obama has won a second term, they will have a chance to find out. While Obama has been famously pragmatic, many wonder to what end. Is he a true progressive, a Blue Dog fiscal conservative, or perhaps a centrist in the Clinton mold?

Michael Grunwald, the author of a new book that deconstructs the massive stimulus bill, argued convincingly in a recent Atlantic essay that President Obama made sizable progressive changes in the early part of his term by using an insider political strategy.

Even if the president hasn't gotten much credit for it, Grunwald writes, the $800 billion stimulus "would not only help prevent a second Great Depression, it would make a dramatic down payment on Obama's campaign promises to reform energy, health care, education and the overall structure of the economy."

It wasn't until Republicans took over the House in 2011, Grunwald asserts, that Obama embraced an outsider strategy, using his bully pulpit to highlight GOP obstructionism on legislation like the American Jobs Act.

But Obama's newly aggressive use of executive authority and efforts to persuade were not merely tactical measures of last resort. As the president repeatedly deployed his power over the last two years, he simultaneously developed a growing comfort with the fact that progressive policy turned out to be good politics. And as the president evolved, the White House evolved with him. The more centrist of his top advisers -- such as Rahm Emanuel -- became external allies, while Valerie Jarrett and first lady Michelle Obama grew in influence on the inside.

Today, there's a strong case to be made that Obama's second term will feature a chief executive who uses both an inside and an outside game to advance progressive ideals.

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One of the tenets of outsider politics is that public opinion matters and therefore transparency matters. In outsider politics, the power of the people plays a fundamental role in a bringing about a desired outcome.

Obama discussed his need to adopt more of an outsider strategy just before the 2010 midterms while discussing his shortcomings in this area. "I think anybody who's occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics, and that you can't be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion," he told Peter Baker of The New York Times.

But President Obama didn't seem to fully absorb that lesson until nine months later. When his debt-ceiling negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner fell apart in July of 2011, Obama discovered the merciless limitations of closed-door dealings. Boehner walked away from talks with no accountability, leaving the president with no recourse. He couldn't enlist the public as an ally because the American people weren't fully briefed on the nature of those talks. And he couldn't leverage support from members of his own party, many of whom had also been kept in the dark so he could place issues like Medicare and Social Security on the bargaining table.

President Obama's transition from a practitioner of insider politics to an employer of outsider politics was best demonstrated to me by something he said about the successful repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy shortly before his evolution began.

"Things don't always go according to your plans," he told me, "and so when they do -- especially in this town -- it's pleasantly surprising."

The statement put Washington at the center of the policy change process, but insiders alone weren't responsible for pushing the effort over the finish line before the close of the 111th Congress. A big part of what made DADT repeal successful was an outsider push. Activists protested vigorously, blogged, wrote op-eds, withheld donations and generally fomented discontent and a sense of urgency that lawmakers had to listen to.

Finally, a little-noticed lawsuit filed by the Log Cabin Republicans engineered a near miracle: a born-again-style conversion of Defense Secretary Robert Gates from repeal blocker to repeal broker. After a federal judge declared the military ban on service by out gay people unconstitutional and ordered a worldwide injunction on the policy in October 2010, Gates realized that if Congress failed to act before Republicans took back control of the House in 2011, the Pentagon would be subject to the whims of the judiciary. Only then did he begin imploring a final few fence-sitting senators to approve repeal before the close of 2010.

Closer to the truth about the repeal effort was what Obama told an Univision forum while campaigning in September: "The most important lesson that I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside, you can only change it from the outside."

In fact, the progressive constituencies that successfully lobbied the White House in the past year-and-a-half worked outside strategies similar to the DADT repeal activists. Environmentalists by the thousands protested the White House regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline and managed to slow the approval for the project that promises to pipe some of the world's dirtiest fuel through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. Immigration activists known as DREAMers interrupted Obama's speech at a National Council of La Raza event after he told them his administration did not have the authority to stop deportations. Reproductive-rights advocates seized on the Komen Foundation's disastrous decision to cut its Planned Parenthood funding to send a message that an army of women (i.e. voters) were tired of having their health-care options held hostage.

Certainly, as Grunwald suggests, the president has used his executive authority over the past two years to highlight the "do-nothing" Congress as well as bypass it on the road to helping middle-class Americans. Among other things, he has provided relief to (some) homeowners overburdened by their debt load and (some) college graduates saddled with student loans, and he has tried to create jobs by clearing the path to nearly $500 million in federal funding for infrastructure projects.

But Obama also used his executive power to push profoundly progressive concerns that had long been considered third-rail issues in Washington. He declared the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and instructed his Justice Department to stop defending it; he halted deportations of immigrant youth and provided them a path to getting work permits; and his administration stipulated that health-insurance plans must cover contraception.

In his first two years, Obama was not the champion that many progressives had hoped he would be. His administration put little time into advancing important pieces of legislation regarding climate change, immigration reform, and labor organizing. On health-care reform, the White House was quick to abandon a public option and later cut a deal on abortion that many reproductive rights advocates believe might pave the way to restricted access down the road.

In response to their initial disappointment with the president's early performance, many progressives speculated that Obama was just waiting for a second term to be more liberal.

A more likely explanation is that Obama was still finding his groove, figuring out which levers worked best for him in the context of governing the nation. And in some ways, he was still developing the courage of his convictions.

In Chicago Tuesday night, President Obama sounded like a man transformed -- a man, in fact, much like the one we first met at the 2004 Democratic Convention. That man told us there were no red states or blue states -- there was only the United States of America. But the Obama who won re-election struck a new note, too, that of a president humbled by four years of governance renewing his appreciation for his compact with the American people.

"The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote," he told the crowd in his acceptance speech. "America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government."

Obama now knows how and when to pull the levers of Washington to his advantage. Meanwhile, his White House and the products it produces have become a truer reflection of its leader. The issues that his more centrist advisers viewed as toxic -- same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and reproductive rights -- became the centerpiece of his reelection bid and paid off big.

Heading into his second term, Obama will have the experience, the counsel, and the conviction to more fully deliver progressive change, thanks to his embrace of insiders and outsiders alike.