President Obama’s unsung conservatism

By Daniel Stratford


President Barack Obama is many things to many people. To the Democratic Party, at least since he defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary season, he is the standard-bearer of a new age, and a symbol of hope, renewal and an emboldened focus on the national interest and the greater good. To the Republicans, he is yet another tax-and-spend liberal concerned more with social leveling and wealth redistribution than with individual liberties or the sanctity of the Constitution. To many elements of the Tea Party, he is a Kenyan national, a Marxist, a socialist sleeper agent, a Nazi, or, confusingly, all of the above.

However, President Obama is of a completely different disposition. Despite running and winning election to the presidency as a Democrat, he is apparently not bound hand-and-foot to any specific ideology. He seems to the casual observer to concern himself solely with the greater good, the national interest, both domestically and in his foreign policy. He possesses, at times, a political deftness that is under-appreciated in the normal spin cycle, but is geared towards advancing objectives that will afford the United States an advantageous position in the multi-polar world to come. Could it be, perhaps, that President Obama is something of a conservative?

Before the author of this piece is assailed from all sides by a withering tide of vitriol, we must first define what “conservatism” is. According to Russell Kirk, a prominent 20th century conservative thinker and author, conservatives do not possess an outlook on life pigeonholed by rigid dogma; rather, he emphasizes ten general “principles” that conservatives have historically adhered to, among which are prudence, a restraint on human passions, and a reverence for tradition. As such, true conservatism of the cerebral variety, as expounded by Kirk, is not so much an ideology as it is a loosely-organized philosophy. It is a philosophy that transcends party and partisanship, but that does not at all repudiate the political process. With regards to the three aforementioned principles, President Obama readily extols his conservative credentials.

The president first and foremost understands the value of prudence and realism in all things relating to governance. Political prudence is not just made evident by frugality, but by resourcefulness and practicality, all the while avoiding Scylla of speculative utopianism and the Charybdis of hysteria. Especially with regards to foreign policy, his approach has encompassed a broad ideological cross-section, not for the sake of ideological diversity, but for the sake of practicality and stability.

In this regard, the president has managed to at least partially rehabilitate the image of the United States in the eyes of our allies in Western Europe, while concurrently engaging nations in the Middle East whose view of the United States is less than jovial. This is in spite of reactionaries who view with contempt any sort of diplomatic engagement with the Middle East outside of Israel as “dealing with terrorists.” He has also recognized the need to open up new markets to American exports, as made evident by recent trade deals signed with India and South Korea. This stands in stark contrast to prior administrations, which saw the decline of industry and the rise of an omnipotent financial sector to be the natural progression of a mature “industrial” economy.

The trend of domestic politics over the past two years since President Obama’s inauguration has lent itself to a confluence of the latter two principles of conservatism. The president recognizes, unlike certain segments of the modern Right, that government is more than just a mere umpire over economic transactions. Government, in the words of Edmund Burke, is a “pact of the dead, the living, and the as of yet unborn,” and is amongst the most potent arbiters of nationhood and social adhesiveness.

Because government derives its ultimate legitimacy, or perception thereof, from the populace, it is empowered to act on its behalf. This can entail enacting policies that the individual or those not attuned to politics may not want, but that the nation overall needs. To again quote Burke, “the multitude is foolish, but the species is wise.” There is much historical precedent to this assertion, from Alexander Hamilton’s nationalization of the accumulated debt from the Revolutionary War in spite of opposition from many Southern states, to Franklin Roosevelt’s insistence on a peacetime draft to prepare for war, in spite of the howls of many isolationists. This tradition of synergy between government and populace reaches back to the birth of the Republic. Like any good conservative should, President Obama recognizes and has reverence for this harmony between government and the governed, and seeks to prudently manage it. Though President Obama’s foreign policy lends itself to this conception of government, it is most pertinent to discuss his domestic economic programs, especially the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

The stabilization of the financial system in the formative years of the Great Recession has been controversial since its inception. The hysterical cries of “let them fail, the market will fix it!” could be heard from every street corner. Yet President Obama, and Bush before him, recognized that a collapse of the financial system would lead to a collapse of the economy – a second Great Depression. In short order, both presidents wisely stabilized the financial system through the TARP program. President Obama wisely continued the program during his first months in office. The people inform, but do not dictate, and as such, the passions of the multitude were necessarily restrained for the good of the nation, with most of the TARP money set to be paid back in the near future, with interest.

Despite the caustic nature of radio talk show hosts everywhere, President Obama has acted in a manner that can only be described as the epitome of traditionalist conservatism. Conservatism, at its very core, emphasizes stability over dogma, and the role of government as the guarantor of that stability. Through his prudent and level-headed prosecution of affairs both foreign and domestic, President Obama has demonstrated himself to be, in more ways than one, more conservative than most “conservatives.”

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]