As White House aides and Congressional leaders flood the media with dueling leaks about just how far President Obama was willing to go last summer to meet the budget-cutting demands of House Speaker John A. Boehner, many liberals have reacted with shock and horror at how much of their historic achievement the president appears to have been ready to bargain away. If a Democratic president could consider cutting America's shredded safety net further when unemployment remained stiffly high and the country was undergoing an explosion of inequality, was the "liberal moment" of American politics finally over?
Yet Maryland recently became the eighth state to join the same-sex marriage club (which includes the District of Columbia). Rush Limbaugh was force-fed a triple helping of crow for his failed attempt at "slut shaming," after opening up the gender gap again. Women, young people, college graduates and mixed-race Americans, surveys indicate, are spurning conservative arguments about contraception, same-sex marriage and sexual freedom.
In other words, economic liberalism is on life-support, while cultural liberalism thrives. The obvious question is why. The simple answer is that cultural liberalism comes cheap. Supporting same-sex marriage or a woman's right to choose does not cost the wealthy anything or restrict their ability to become wealthier. But there is more to it than that.
The United States has undoubtedly become a fairer, more open and less oppressive society thanks largely to the political and cultural struggles waged by liberals during the past half century. The progress in securing basic human and civil rights for women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians, immigrants and their children, Americans with disabilities and so many others is a testament to liberal courage in the face of adversity and oppression. This was the work of "those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized," as Barack Obama recalled on the occasion of the unveiling of the memorial statue of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall in October.
Liberal optimism regarding race and progress had been buoyed by the belief that, with the right experts running the government, an expanding economic pie could be guaranteed indefinitely, which would in turn purchase peace between feuding factions. But liberals had no ready response when the global economy chose not to cooperate, first with the rise in oil prices following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and then with the exodus of exactly the kinds of manufacturing jobs that had provided the engine driving the expansion of the middle class in the first place.
The failure of liberals to plan for the failure of their plans — what Saul Bellow once called the "Good Intentions Paving Company" — resulted in a bitter, resentful scramble for the remaining scraps. Liberal politicians proved unable to face up to the harsh realities. "The great liberal failing of this time," Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed as early as 1968, was "constantly to over-promise and to overstate, and thereby constantly to appear to under-perform." This not only alienated key constituencies, but it also diminished the trust between the governing and the governed that previous generations of liberals had worked so hard to earn.
Caught in the crosswinds of so many simultaneous crises — I have not even mentioned Vietnam — many liberals chose to focus, rather perversely, on a "rights" agenda and the internecine fights it engendered within their increasingly fractured coalition. They lost sight of the essential element that had made the coalition possible in the first place: the sense that liberalism stood with the common man and woman in their struggle against economic forces too large and powerful to be faced by individuals on their own.
Liberals must find a way to combine their cultural successes with new approaches to achieving economic equality. But they must do so unambiguously and unequivocally. That brings us back to President Obama.
The president often sounds as if he believes in a vigorous economic populism. Just this past Tuesday he told the American Society of News Editors: "In this country broad-based prosperity has never trickled down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class. That's how a generation who went to college on the G.I. Bill, including my grandfather, helped build the most prosperous economy the world has ever known." But so far the president has been unwilling to put his budgetary moneys where his mouth is.
In fact, Obama has proved far more adept at adapting his positions toward the increasingly radical views enunciated by the leaders of the Republican Party than he has in articulating — and sticking to — an alternative vision of the role of government in ensuring a fair economic shake for all its citizens.
He asked the right question on Tuesday when he said: "Can we succeed as a country where a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by? Or are we better off when everyone gets a fair shot?" But as liberals have repeatedly learned to their dismay, the devil is not in the poetry of the president's election-time rhetoric but in the prose of his apparent eagerness to seek out a compromise on almost any Republican proposal offered him. Liberals have spent decades trying to adjudicate the claims of their conflicting constituencies without focusing sharply enough on the economic well-being of a broad section of Americans. A fight for fairness and equity could unite the working poor and middle class in a winning coalition for the future, but the problem today for liberals is less the message itself than the credibility of the messenger.
While signaling his support for much if not all of liberalism's cultural agenda, President Obama has occasionally tossed economic liberals a rhetorical bone — but he has also worried too much about deficit reduction. In this regard, Obama embodies the unsolved liberal conundrum. Were the president to embrace a genuinely populist economic agenda and mean it this time — just as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in his second term — he might go a long way toward solving the problem that has dogged liberalism now for nearly half a century.