President Barack Obama Election Night 2012

One of the important things we may learn during the lame duck session as the White House hammers out a deal with Republicans on the fiscal slope is an answer to the vexing if tiresome question of what “really” motivates President Obama’s policies.

There are two schools of thought among progressives. For those who consistently support the President despite being well to the left of his record, there’s the widespread conviction that Obama is a closet progressive who has been consistently and tragically hemmed in by the Republicans, by public opinion, or by the reality of governing in Washington DC. According to this theory, the President hasn’t been able to achieve the policy aspirations of ideological progressives because powerful forces have stopped him short or pushed him in other directions. Remove or overcome those obstacles, and you’ll find a different Barack Obama than the one his official record suggests, an Obama who would not hesitate to enact real universal healthcare with a public option, real help for homeowners who are underwater, labor law reform, major global warming legislation, criminal investigations of the bankers most responsible for the financial collapse, an end to the Keystone pipeline project, etc.

Then there’s the alternative theory, which argues that for the last four years, Obama has governed as Obama has seen fit to govern. Certainly, he has faced major opposition to many parts of his agenda from Congressional Republicans, from powerful corporate lobbies, etc., as any Democratic president would. But he has been largely successful in achieving an overall policy framework that conforms to his political convictions, which are by and large centrist and technocratic. He hasn’t pursued criminal prosecutions of bankers because he doesn’t see bankers as criminals or their greed and overreach as the catalysts of the financial meltdown. He doesn’t see helping homeowners who are upside down on their mortgages as necessary to fix the economy, and he doesn’t see doing so as the government’s responsibility. He supports the Keystone XL Pipeline on its merits (with some modest environmental safeguards attached), he believes in healthcare reform only within the parameters of “market-based” approaches, and he doesn’t really care about labor law reform. He’s no right wing radical, but he’s no social justice activist, either. The record of his first four years, disappointing as it has been for progressives, was shaped largely by his own policy preferences, not by the intransigence of his political opponents.

One theory sees the record of the first term of the Obama presidency as the failed aspirations of an ideological ally. The other sees it as the successful implementation of a political philosophy that is simply not progressive in any way.

In a sense, it’s a metaphysical question: you can’t ever really know what motivates someone to do what they do, nor outside of the contexts of psychotherapy or interpersonal relationships does it generally matter much. But it’s also the most important question you can ask when it comes to discerning what the second Obama term might look like.

Until now, the evasive nature of the political psyche of Barack Obama has been a strategic benefit to the administration. On the one hand, no matter how many progressive principles he violated in the first term, no matter how many campaign promises he broke, his supporters were always there to argue that it was somebody else’s fault, that he did only exactly what anybody else in his position could have done under the circumstances, that if only the Republicans weren’t so crazy or the corporate lobbyists so powerful, he would have acted precisely as his purist critics on the left prescribed. Deporting more immigrants than George W. Bush? He’s just doing what he has to do to appease the Republican anti-immigrant zealots in order to set the table for comprehensive reform. Drone strikes? Hey, better than real war, which is what the Republicans would do. Ponying up Medicare and Social Security for cuts in the debt ceiling debate? How else to stave off fiscal calamity at the hands of Republicans, and anyway, entitlements are going to need to be dealt with at some point, and would you rather have Paul Ryan butcher them unilaterally, or have a Democratic president at the bargaining table?

Meanwhile, those who have argued that Obama was never a “real” progressive in the first place have helped bolster the administration’s claims to negotiating partners and other Washington stakeholders (the GOP caucus, business leaders, political reporters) that the President is an independent actor unencumbered by ideology and not beholden to the “professional left.” If the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is out there blasting us for abandoning the public option, so the argument went, then can you really believe we’re taking our cues from the single payer, government takeover crowd? If we’re so soft on Islamic radicalism, then how is it that Glenn Greenwald is putting us through the wringer for secret kill lists and prosecutions of whistleblowers? Come on, we’re all reasonable people here.

So which is it? The debate over the fiscal slope might help finally answer that question. With the election behind him and with the Republicans’ best case for an austerity-based budget that protects the rich from tax increases soundly rejected by voters, there isn’t a lot in the political equation to prevent Obama from implementing the solution that he wants to see. If the Republicans continue to refuse to budge from their position, it will be out of the political paralysis of a fiercely divided caucus, not a united adherence to conservative principle. In that case, a standoff between the White House and the GOP could well spell the implosion of the latter. Obama won the election; he has the upper hand in the debate and the resolution of the dispute will be his to determine. But what is the solution Obama wants to see?

If Obama uses the political capital of his election victory to secure the deal that he claims is best for the middle class and for the economy — an end to the Bush tax cuts for the top two percent — then it will become possible to argue that the election swept away some of the political clutter that had prevented Obama from enacting his real agenda in the first term, and that now we’re starting to get a glimpse of Obama the progressive activist peering out of the closet. We’ll see over the course of the first hundred days if that pattern continues.

If, on the other hand, the President agrees to a “balanced” approach that concedes to Republican demands for an extension of the current tax rates and also cuts spending on safety net programs, then it will be high time for a universal ban on the political blinders worn by so many unconditional Obama supporters in the first term. Unlike the last cycle, Obama did not run on the promise of bipartisanship as a paramount virtue. He ran on the argument that his careful approach to economic growth and stability is superior to the Republicans’ slash-and-burn austerity fetishism. It was an argument of outcomes, not process. How Obama resolves the “fiscal cliff” debate should be taken as a true indication of the kind of future the President really wants to shape for the country — and not as yet another situation he was haplessly forced into by nefarious actors whose powers were greater than his own resolve.