As millions of Obama supporters flood Washington D.C, an interesting thing has happened. Democrats are starting to very softly, and quietly revive the term liberal.
As Ben Smith reported on his blog, no less than Obama’s chief of staff invoked the work while talking about Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), “[Frank] is — to all of us who are liberals — our congressman.” Even though Rahm’s liberal street cred is more than a little lacking, his use of the term represents a dramatic shift from the past 25 years of demonization.
Over the past two decades, conservatives took an adjective that many Democrats used with pride, and turned into a scarlet letter that became political shorthand for big government, big spending, and Big Brother. The dreaded L word cost was the Republican candidate’s favorite tool in a political campaign. Nothing could be more damning in many districts than to be labeled a liberal. Instead of trying to take back their term, Democrats ran away from it like scalded dogs.
Former President Bill Clinton went out of his way to label himself a new Democrat, and make it clear to all that he is not a liberal. If anyone needed any proof of this, they should look no further than the disastrous welfare reform that Clinton signed at the behest of Republicans. However, with the nation teetering towards financial ruin, the ideas of liberalism have begun to look more appealing, but the new president has sent out lots of early signals that he does not intend to govern as a liberal.
No one will ever confuse Dennis Kucinich and Barack Obama. While Kucinich has become the liberal standard bearer, Obama tends to root himself more in the middle on most issues. Obama is about to face heavy pressure from left, who now see him as the best opportunity to get social legislation passed that they have been fighting for decades. It is not much of a surprise that what little early criticism of Obama that there has been has come from the left.
The president elect has gotten off to a fine start towards his goal of changing Washington, but the more fascinating possibility is that Obama has a chance to change the definition of the word liberal. The big government liberal days are most likely over, but there is a desire for a liberal philosophy that reorients our government towards citizen interests, and away from corporate ones.
Once the economic crisis has passed, it would not be a surprise to see Obama spend taxpayer money in a practical way. A key theme of Obama’s plans for infrastructure investment is long term benefit. It is conventional wisdom that long term thinking doesn’t help a president, but in Obama’s case, long term planning and successful execution could lead to not a return of the term liberal to the positive political dialogue, but also what it means to be a liberal.