Obama : a conservative in disguise ?

With a presidency confronted to a rightward shift in public opinion and a Republican Congress since 2014, we can wonder if there is a natural tendency for the Obama presidency to move even further to the right and to consider him as a conservative president.

In 2011, an opinion poll carried out by the Gallup organization made two assessments about political ideologies in America.[1] First, it suggested that the country was becoming more and more polarized with an increase of American people defining themselves either “conservative” or “liberal” rather than calling themselves “moderate”. Second, it revealed that conservatives remained the largest ideological group of the country. This idea was reinforced by an article of the Washington Post published more recently in September 2013 demonstrating that American public opinion was more conservative in 2012 than it has been in the last decades. As a result especially since 2008, the center of gravity has shifted to the right.

In order to understand the major trends that actually shape the United States, it is crucial to define conservatism and its principles. The Collins dictionary calls a conservative someone who is tending to preserve established traditions or institutions and to resist or oppose any changes in these. This definition associates thus conservatism with the preservation of traditional order. This broad definition can be completed with that of Russell Kirk. In his famous 1953 book The Conservative Mind, Kirk underlines the significance of a moral order within society, the principle of prudence, of freedom and property and he also rejects progress.[2]

Although this definition of a “conservative” remains extensive, this overview is indeed necessary to apprehend the political context of the Obama years. After the Bush era dominated by neoconservative policies, the 2008 presidential election was seen as a progressive backlash with the victory of Obama. But it turns out that the changes expected both in foreign and domestic policies were not that radical. Furthermore, especially since 2012, the shift in the president’s liberal policies to a more conservative agenda became even more visible (with examples such as the extension of FISA or the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013). Some commentators even observed a sort of continuity with the Bush administration in the ground of foreign policy while others argued that Obamacare was not truly progressive.

If one takes a look at US drone strikes outside the declared war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, one musts acknowledge that the vast majority of the strikes launched since 2004 have been ordered under the Obama administration. The data reveals that the current US President was behind 362 of the total 413 strikes in Pakistan that were launched from 2004 to the end of January 2015.[3] In addition to this, there has been an intensification of the strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in January 2015: more drones were sent in a month than since July 2014, and more people were killed. It brings the total casualties since Barack Obama’s inauguration to 2,464 people killed outside the countries with which the US is officially at war. The fact is, the US under Bush bombed four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia. Under Obama, it went up to seven, adding strikes on Yemen, Lybia and Syria.[4] There seems to be thus a sort of continuity, and even escalation of Bush’s policy in this issue of foreign matters under the Obama administration.

With drone strikes, the line between preventive action, that is to say intervention even though there are no straightforward signs of aggression from the other part, and pre-emptive action, intervention motivated by clear signs, is blurred. The official position of the administration on this is that drones strikes are justified if there is an imminent threat, but the definition of imminent threat is subject to interpretation, as well as a number of notions present in the administration’s memos. “If armed drones are to be used, States must adhere to international humanitarian law, and should disclose the legal basis for their operational responsibility and criteria for targeting,” explained Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in December 2013.[5] Yet, it appears that there is precisely a lack of accountability and of disclosing when it comes to US drone strikes. This sort of action, lacking transparency,[6] may remind us of the Bush administration. The neoconservatives of his administration promoted active foreign policy to defend democracy and the American interests abroad. They legitimated brutal unilateral action because it was deemed necessary (especially after 9/11) in order to promote those values. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an example of this kind of aggressive, un-justified, non-transparent action. Therefore, the Obama administration doesn’t seem to completely repudiate the methods of the Bush administration.

Furthermore, the war powers’ request issued by Obama in February 2015 is meeting resistance from the Democrats in Congress. The Authorization for the Use of Military Forces in Afghanistan is perceived, in its wording, as vague since it is supposed to prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations”.[7] This is meant to reassure Congress that it would not be about involving the US troops for another long war. But the President already has the legal authority to conduct military operations, so the obvious question is what would be the difference with this new AUMF ?[8] There is consequently a fear among Democratic congressmen, and particularly among the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a left-leaning caucus of the House of Representatives, that this could lead to a new quagmire in the Middle-East. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D – NY) was one of the members who voiced concerns, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D – CA); the problem for Pelosi may be to face a caucus with growing influence that would put her in the middle of its quarrel with the administration. The Caucus issued a statement in March 2015, explaining that they “do not support extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan”.[9] It appears that President Obama alienate his party on this issue, since some Democrats think the authorization is too broad, and might therefore doubt the intentions of their President.

On the domestic ground, President Obama recently proposed a comprehensive immigration reform that seemed to be progressive. This bill aimed at providing undocumented immigrants with a legal way to earn citizenship. Immigrants must pass national security and criminal background checks, pay taxes and learn English if they want to become US citizens. Moreover, this bill creates a provisional legal status and grants to children brought in the US illegally the eligibility for earned citizenship by going to college or serving in the US army for at least two years. But on the other hand, this reform would provide law enforcement to stiffen security operations along the border with Mexico in order to remove criminal immigrants. This bill was passed by the Senate in 2013 but it was blocked in the Republican House. Through this bill, we can observe a divide within the Republican Party. In fact, a national survey[10] revealed major disagreements between Tea Party conservatives and non-Tea Party conservatives when it comes to illegal immigrants and immigration policy.

Those who oppose that reform are advocating the conservation of law and order. In February 2015, a Texas federal court judge supported by twenty-six states from the Midwest and the South temporary blocked President Obama’s executive order on immigration. They criticized the fact that Obama bypassed the Congress through his executive orders. Christopher Parker explained that some conservative Republicans opposed this reform because they fear “losing their country” to Southern immigrants.

But on the other hand, some conservatives strongly supported President Obama’s immigration reform. In this reform, Obama authorized visa programs for working immigrants and reduced the barriers for immigrant entrepreneurs in order to make a concession to the business community. Thus he fulfilled the wishes of many conservatives who wanted to push for deregulation to allow immigrants to legally work in the United States. Through this comprehensive immigration reform, we can observe a sort of continuity between President Obama and the interests of conservative businessmen.

In France we often hear that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act adopted in March 2010, upheld by the Supreme Court in June of 2012 – or Obamacare – is a progressive measure. In the US it is also the most common idea. But it is very questionable. Indeed, in his article for The New York Times (September 29, 2012) entitled “The Conservative Case for Obamacare”, J. D. Kleinke affirms that Obamacare is a conservative measure! The author has a series of arguments for that. Obamacare received little support on the left because people knew it was not a “government takeover on health care”. It received little support from the liberals because the bill was based on a conservative idea: the system of the individual mandate underlines the importance of the conservative principle of personal responsibility. The principle of accountability – a conservative principle according to Kleinke – is also honored by Obamacare: with the new system, each individual and each business can choose which business insurance would deserve their subscription. They can compare all the offers.

Actually, according to the author, Obamacare is the twin brother of the market (Republican) alternative to Hillarycare during the 90s. It tries to extend the current system to every American. It repatriates the people who left the system because they thought they were paying for the others, and forbids discrimination against the persons who could not join the system because they had bad medical records. Actually, it extends the market, that’s why the health insurance industry mainly supported Obamacare before it was voted! It follows the logic of market economics (pricing transparency, standardization…). Moreover, at the beginning of the G.W. Bush presidency, the “association health plans” appeared. Their ideas were the same of Obamacare: it was based on totally market-economics-foundations. That’s why they would have been the keystone of Bushcare if his administration had not been occupied by other subjects, and that’s why Governor Romney applied exactly the same program in 2006 in his state, Massachusetts. Of course, for Romney it was an expression of the rights of the states. But his party had bigger plans for the entire United States. That’s probably why the Republicans have been unable to propose something better, because Obama supported their (former) conservative project, and because they could not have supported his project just because of politics. In fact, according to Kleinke, their problem is that all the credit goes to Barack Obama.

Thus we can say that Barack Obama proved, since his election in 2008, that he was not that progressive. He may even seem conservative on certain fields. He demonstrated his ideological shift on foreign policy matters as much as on domestic policy topics. And we could suppose that it underlines the complexity of the notion of conservatism, of course. Now, is Obama a conservative in disguise ? Maybe not. But he may, at least, have the mask. Since the Democrats largely repudiated the President as Party leader in the 2014 mid-terms, we can wonder what effect the end of Obama’s term will have on the party. Will it further divide it, or will the administration make a move to fix things ?

[1] “Conservatives remain the Largest Ideological Group in US”, Gallup, Politics, Lydia Saad, January 12th, 2012 http://www.gallup.com/poll/152021/conservatives-remain-largest-ideological-group.aspx

[2] The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot, Russell Kirk, Broché, 2011

[3]  “Almost 2,500 now killed by covert US drone strikes since Obama inauguration six years ago: the Bureau’s report for January 2015”, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Jack Serle, February 2, 2015. http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2015/02/02/almost-2500-killed-covert-us-drone-strikes-obama-inauguration/

[4] “Fact-checking the war-comparisons between Obama and Bush”, Politifact.com, Tampa Bay Times, Lauren Carroll, Jon Greenberg, October 1st, 2014. http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2014/oct/01/fact-checking-war- comparisons-between-obama-and-bu/

[5] “Yemen: UN experts condemn drone strikes on mistaken wedding processions”, UN News Centre, December 26th 2013 http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46831#.VUN-IPntmko
[6] “US drone strike transparency needed after 2 hostage deaths: human rights group”, New York Daily News, Melissa Chan, April 23rd, 2015 http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/drone-strikes-transparency-needed-2-hostage-deaths- article-1.2195977

[7] “Obama’s war powers request meets resistance from Democrats”, The Hill, Mike Lillis, February 11th 2015 http://thehill.com/homenews/house/232448-dems-skeptical-of-war-powers-request

[8] “AUMF 2015 and the war on ISIL”, Berkeley Political Review, Jerry Lin, April 14th 2015. http://bpr.berkeley.edu/2015/04/14/aumf-2015-and-the-war-on-isil/

[9] “Congressional Progressive Caucus Urges President Obama to Bring US troops in Afghanistan Home”, Progressive Democrats of America, March 25th 2015. http://www.pdamerica.org/component/k2/item/490-congressional-progressive- caucus-urges-president-obama-to-bring-u-s-troops-in-afghanistan-home
[10] 2011 Multi-State Survey of Race and Politics, Christopher S. Parker, http://depts.washington.edu/uwiser/racepolitics_research2011.html

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