10/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Obama is (So Far) No Liberal Reagan

Obama will probably win this election, but only by the skin of his teeth. Let's face it: Obama is not the transformational candidate we liberals had hoped for.

Progressives should (and will) continue fighting for Obama against that walking bag of translucent lies, medieval dogmatism, pure free-market fanaticism, and committed incompetence that is the GOP's geriatric/benighted ossuary of a ticket. Obama, unlike his boorish opponents, demonstrates many outstanding political qualities: intelligence, a gift of gab, sound judgment, a reassuring temperament, humor, and organizational acumen. He is not the gutless Dukakis-clone that Christopher Hitchens would like us to believe. It is just too soon to freak out; to cry; to panic; to hyperventilate; to rip out our hair; to confirm that sabbatical overseas; to don sack cloth and ashes; or to break out that bottle of Jameson over an impending Dem defeat.

But it is not too early to acknowledge that Obama is not the "liberal Reagan" or the great redemptive hype that so many pundits and acolytes had presumptuously and prematurely predicted over the past year. Not even close.

Since the beginning of the presidential campaign, Obama's most ardent breast-beating believers--pundits like Andrew Sullivan, academics, and even some conservative Brookings think-tankers---fantasized that Obama would be for liberals in 2008 what Reagan was for conservatives in 1980: a transformational candidate who would not only capture a wide electoral victory by appealing to moderate conservatives, but a candidate who would usher in a political and cultural revolution, redefining the nature of American politics (as Reagan did) for decades.

Just as Reagan redefined our political culture so that liberals and liberalism (both economic and cultural) became fringe un-American calumnies, Obama was supposed to finally turn the ideological tide by discrediting (what are in fact) bankrupt conservative ideas, shaming Republicans into cultural withdrawal. In short, Obama should have turned the prevailing ostracism of liberalism on its head, brought liberals back to the center of political life from their thirty-year exile, and offered the Reagan Revolution its long overdue burial.

But Obama is no liberal Gipper. He differs from Reagan in at least three crucial respects.

First, Obama, unlike Reagan, shows a remarkable aversion to political ruthlessness.

Second, Obama allows his arrogance to dominate his pragmatic instincts. While Obama blundered in rejecting Hillary for vice president, Reagan remained pragmatic regarding his political adversaries; also a relative outsider to his party in 1980, Reagan shrewdly selected his GOP primary opponent, George H.W. Bush, as his running mate to secure the election.

Third, Obama has not provided a simple visionary alternative, as Reagan did, to the prevailing political philosophy about government.

Pundits have been spilling much ink theorizing over why this is a close election. After eight years of Bush, why can't the democratic nominee establish a substantial lead over the incumbent party? Blame has been directed to everything under the sun from the "Palin effect" to race to the Muslim miasma to Obama's lack of geographical rootedness (David Brook's euphemism for race) to the polarization of an evenly divided electorate along ideological lines to the purported conservative nature of the (entire) American electorate to the "success" of the surge and (ironically) even to the popularity of the Democrats.

Read between the lines of each of these arguments and you will find one fatalistic assumption in common: Americans are inherently conservative and Democratic politicians ignore this reality at their own peril. Only a white conservative Democrat like Clinton or Carter has any real chance of making it to the White House. If Obama cannot establish a significant lead, he is either not conservative enough or there is nothing he can do about it.

By the looks of it, Obama shares these fatalistic and self-defeating assumptions. But there is nothing entrenched, innate, or interminable about American conservativism. Instead, the blame for Obama's stagnation in the polls lies (as it did with all Democratic nominees of recent memory) with Obama himself.

Obama is still playing by the Republican rules of the game. He has done nothing to dismantle or challenge the basic conservative assumptions that dominate our political philosophy: Big government is still the enemy, "liberal" is still a filthy word, raising taxes is still the kiss of death, and a deregulated free-market is still the answer for every social ill. Can we really expect dramatic electoral shifts leftward when dominant conservative assumptions about government remain unchallenged?

Failing to discredit and vilify conservatism, Obama has not done to conservatives what Reagan did to liberals twenty eight years ago. As a result, whether Obama wins or loses, our political culture will remain the same. He has not changed the nature of this game. After this election cycle has passed, Democrats will continue to market themselves (poorly) as conservatives; "Clintonism" will continue to be the only viable road to the White House; and conservativism will go on unchallenged, unquestioned, and undefeated. This is all very disappointing since we liberals needed and still need a Gipper of our own.

With thirty years of conservative ideas about governance, economics, and foreign policy unraveling around us, Obama should be taking advantage of this historical turning-point to assert an ideologically distinctive FDR-style populism--not a vapid "post-partisan" middle-road (a strategy that indirectly reaffirms the discredited policies of the Right as viable) . Most importantly, Obama needs to shape the meaning of the historical events unfolding around us in liberal ideological and policy terms; offering a simple but inspiring vision for our future along the lines of the "New Deal" or "Great Society."

Now is the time to reclaim the dreaded L-word. Obama should invert Reagan's famous farewell that has doomed liberals for decades: The masquerade is over. It is time to say the dreaded C-word; to say the policies of our opposition are conservative, conservative, conservative.