Obama Is No Radical

But maybe we'd be better off if he were.


The conservative firebrand David Horowitz has declared the Obama White House a "radical regime." For the Republican radio host Sean Hannity, the ousted ex-communist "green jobs" czar Van Jones "signifies the radicalism of this administration." Even Andy Williams, the Branson crooner who sang "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses," has joined the chorus, telling Radio Times this week that Barack Obama is "following Marxist theory."

For a chunk of the right—the portion that defines itself by its opposition to "the left"—that's the best explanation for the country's recent political path: Washington has been seized by radicals. But compared to a real radical, Obama is about as middle of the road as Andy Williams' music.

Yes, he gave a job to Van Jones, and if you search his administration you'll find yet more hires whose views are well to the left of most of the country. If you looked through George W. Bush's administration, you'd find hires with views well to the right of most of the country: Eric Keroack, say, the critic of contraception who landed a job atop the family planning office at the Department of Health and Human Services. It's an ideological spoils system, patronage paid to the factions that make up a party's base. And sometimes it has policy consequences, so it's worth monitoring closely.

Yet most people on the right will tell you, quite accurately, that the Bush years didn't do much to shift the country toward greater social or economic conservatism. I expect most people on the left will say something similar when Obama exits office. Thus far, the president's domestic agenda has been many things, but radical it isn't. Radicals make sudden turns. Obama sometimes slams his foot on the accelerator—just look at projected spending for the next few years—but he hardly ever tries to change direction. Radicals tear down centers of power. When Obama is 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.

And no, I'm not using "radical" as a euphemism for "free-market libertarian." A radical Obama still might have extended assistance to the people displaced by the corporate failures, perhaps even setting up a generous guaranteed income scheme. He might have broken up the big banks. He might have done all sorts of things, some wiser than others. But he would not have strengthened the corporate-state partnerships bequeathed to him by Bush.

After the bailouts we had the "stimulus" package, which boiled down to this: You're cutting back on unsustainable consumption? Here: Spend more! Around the same time we got the cash for clunkers program, which took that same impulse and added incentives that undermined the salvage business and the second-hand car trade—markets that are far more decentralized, dynamic, and open to the participation of the poor than the automakers that accepted Obama's largesse.

Now we have health care reform. Here you might actually expect the president to veer in a new direction and let a powerful institution die. After all, it's been only six years since he described himself as "a proponent of a single-payer, universal health care plan," and if he were serious about that it would mean the end of the private health insurance industry. Single payer isn't on the table right now, but liberal Democrats are trying to push a "public option"—a government-run alternative for people who'd like to opt out of the available private plans—into the legislation. And the public option is, in the words of single-payer advocate Mark Schmitt, "a kind of stealth single-payer." So in health care at least, Obama's a radical, right?

I don't think so, for two reasons. First, it's increasingly unlikely that a public option will be a part of the bill that emerges, in which case we'll be left with an enormous boondoggle for the industry: a law requiring every American to buy health insurance or else face legal sanctions. Every other powerful institution in the health sector already supports the president's proposals. Indeed, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the American Medical Association, and the Federation of American Hospitals are sponsoring a multi-million-dollar ad campaign on the measures' behalf. If the public-option-free version of ObamaCare becomes the face of reform, don't be surprised if the insurers join them.

Second, and more important, a system with more government-provided insurance, even one with only government-provided insurance, would still accept the institutional premises of the present medical system. Consider the typical American health care transaction. On one side of the exchange you'll have one of an artificially limited number of providers, many of them concentrated in those enormous, faceless institutions called hospitals. On the other side, making the purchase, is not a patient but one of those enormous, faceless institutions called insurers. The insurers, some of which are actual arms of the government and some of which merely owe their customers to the government's tax incentives and shape their coverage to fit the government's mandates, are expected to pay all or a share of even routine medical expenses. The result is higher costs, less competition, less transparency, and, in general, a system where the consumer gets about as much autonomy and respect as the stethoscope. Radical reform would restore power to the patient. Instead, the issue on the table is whether the behemoths we answer to will be purely public or public-private partnerships.

So I can't agree with Horowitz, Hannity, or Andy Williams. The president could pal around with militiamen, hook a money hose from the Treasury to ACORN HQ, and sleep each night with a Zapatista plush doll, but as long as his chief concern is preserving and protecting the country's largest corporate enterprises, the biggest beneficiaries of his reign will be at the core of the American establishment.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.