By Justin Sink - 06/17/13 09:00 AM EDT
Five months into his second term, allies and enemies are as confounded as ever about who President Obama really is. [WATCH VIDEO]
Is he the dyed-in-the-wool liberal that his biggest supporters and critics suggest? Or is he a pragmatic, even cynical, politician who cares more for his popularity than taking risks for his ideological goals or living up to his rhetoric?
His efforts to pass immigration reform, the unsuccessful push for stricter gun controls and tax hikes on high earners buttress the case for Obama-as-ideologue. But the president has also stoutly defended National Security Agency (NSA) programs that seize U.S. phone records and monitor Internet use, prompting comparisons with his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama came to power on the strength of his opposition to war in Iraq but is now poised to intervene in the civil war in Syria.
On top of that, there is the Justice Department’s pursuit of leakers and reporters, which critics say displays an authoritarianism that repels erstwhile liberal supporters and inflames long-standing libertarian-conservative opponents.
“President Obama has always been instinctively careful. And while he has progressive values, he’s pursued them in a careful and pragmatic way that has left his base feeling unenthusiastic [and] dispirited,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
Observers say the either-or choice between Obama the ideologue and Obama the pragmatist is simplistic and misleading. They say he is both: His principles on domestic issues in particular are on the left, but he is willing to bend those principles to rack up achievements and burnish his legacy.
“President Obama has always been pragmatic, but that’s the heart of his appeal to progressives,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who has advised the White House on messaging. “I think that’s part of the reason people feel his leadership is effective; he systematically pursues his agenda.”
But Obama’s approach is risky. The left was ecstatic when the president’s second inaugural address and 2013 State of the Union speech suggested that he would undertake an ambitious progressive agenda now that he was freed from the need to win another election.
The inaugural in particular seemed to show Obama believing that “his reelection would convince Republicans that they had to deal with him, that they had to come to the table,” Jillson said. “He articulated that idea at several points during the campaign, that the fever among the Republicans will break.”
But a tsunami of scandals and controversies since then has confounded the president’s ambitions.
Democratic senators are among the staunchest critics of the NSA surveillance programs revealed this month, with Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Democrats from Oregon, calling for legislation to declassify details of the Internet and phone snooping.
On the environment, early indications are that the State Department plans to OK the Keystone XL pipeline, which would infuriate liberal activists.
Many on the left see a backsliding toward unprincipled compromise, and fear he will fall as far short of their hopes in his second term as he did in his first.
But the White House may be changing. Robert Gibbs, as White House press secretary in 2010, excoriated the “professional left” in an interview with The Hill, and said liberals who compared Obama with Bush “ought to be drug tested.” But now, the president’s allies say that Obama is dedicated to a progressive agenda.
In a Washington Post interview last week, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer acknowledged that the White House needed to keep supporters happy. “The greatest danger zone a president can be in is when he is being attacked on the left and the right,” Pfeiffer said. “When they are reading off the same talking points, that’s when presidencies fall apart.”
Allies say that the president has stuck his neck out for big liberal items such as gun control and immigration reform.
“He’s pushing hard on a pathway to citizenship, he wants to fight on the budget deal having a lot of balance, and on the background [checks] issue, he went around the country and spent serious political capital on that,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.
They also say the Democratic grassroots see Obama’s White House as politically shrewd. They cite the way the administration fought during the election year against making Plan B birth control available to all women, but then quietly dropped that opposition last week.
And, even though the Keystone pipeline might get approved, the president has told environmentalists he will unveil sweeping new restrictions on greenhouse gasses.
Similarly, the president has offered congressional Republicans the chance to lower Social Security benefits by endorsing chained consumer price indexing, a less generous formula than is used now, while insisting that the concession will only be made within a larger budget deal containing liberal priorities.
The president also earns some leeway from voters in the way he approaches some of the foreign policy controversies that have inflamed Washington’s chattering class. A poll from Pew Research and The Washington Post found that 56 percent of all voters thought the recently revealed NSA surveillance programs were “acceptable,” including 64 percent of Democrats.
“It’s important to distinguish between professional progressives who are complaining about Obama and continuity with Bush on TV, and progressive voters in the Democratic Party,” Jillson said.
The president’s allies say ultimately progressives will look at the totality of the president’s record when judging his legacy.
“He’s not judged by how fast he moves policy, he’s judged by the end result,” Devine said. “There are always going to be people demanding everything today, but they’re not going to be in the room, they’re going to be outside shouting. And what he’s been able to accomplish so far helps muzzle them and keep his supporters happy.”