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WASHINGTON--In its heyday--say, the 1960s--American liberalism had an obvious identity. It was ambitious, reformist, and frankly moral in its appeal to a common good that included minorities and the poor.
It was praised as idealistic and attacked as utopian. Robert Kennedy set out "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world." William F. Buckley, with some justification, criticized liberals for attempting to "immanentize the eschaton"--that is, trying to transform Earth into Heaven.
A few days after assuming the presidency, Lyndon Johnson was warned not to waste his energy on lost causes, however worthy. According to historian Robert Caro, Johnson responded: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, the Job Corps, Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and the Public Broadcasting Act followed. (Think of LBJ as the incubator of Big Bird.)
After four years of Barack Obama and two clarifying presidential debates, it is extraordinary how shrunken liberalism has become. During his much-praised town-hall performance, the president
Enumerating the reasons that the "future is bright," Obama proposed tax incentives for domestic investment, trade promotion, greater investment in solar and wind power, road and bridge construction, broader job retraining in community colleges, and higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy. He added pledges to defend Medicare and Planned Parenthood against barbarian assault.
The candidate was energized; the agenda remained tired. Taken together, Obama's proposals have little ambition or thematic coherence. They add up to the Marginally Greater Society. It helps little to repeat the words "middle class" over and over in an attempt at political hypnosis. After four years of weary wandering in the economic wilderness, Obama is still incapable of describing the Promised Land.
As the agenda of a liberal president, the silences were particularly notable. At Hofstra, Obama gave no sustained attention to poverty, though 6 million Americans have fallen below the poverty line since 2008. (At the town hall, Romney used the word "poverty" five times; Obama never did.) Obama did not mention the scandalous failure of public schools to teach minority children. He laid little emphasis, Keynesian or otherwise, on aggressively encouraging economic growth--what John F. Kennedy called getting America "moving again."