To understand President Obama's policy decisions and personnel choices, it is important to consider his underlying philosophy, which comes more from Ronald Reagan than FDR. Central to Obama's ideology are the following four elements, all derived from the Republican Revolution of 1980: distrusting the government, cutting taxes, idealizing free markets, and expanding the military budget.
At first, it might seem that the president's healthcare bill reveals that he is a big government Democrat, but if you look at what was actually driving the bill, you see that instead of trying to regulate costs and profits --as is the case in most European programs--, Obama's program lets the insurance companies, pharmaceutical corporations, and medical institutions continue to establish their own free market approach to pricing and compensation.
Obama's approach to the financial markets reveals this same combination of free market fundamentalism and an anti-government rejection of regulation. During the initial bank bailout, instead of taking over the banks and imposing new restrictions on exotic instruments, the administration turned to private capital to stabilize the banks. In his many interviews on this subject, Timothy Geithner stressed that they did not want the government to interfere with the free market. Of course, the reality is that the government did take over $1.2 trillion of bad mortgages from the banks and guaranteed these firms loans with trillions of dollars of taxpayers' money. Moreover, this act of corporate welfare has made these financial institutions look artificially healthy, while they use their new profits to buy their own stocks and drive up their deferred compensation. The result is that the stock market has gone up, but unemployment remains at a high level.
Perhaps Obama's greatest Reagan legacy is his tremendous increase of the military budget and augmentation of the national deficit. Like Reagan, Obama has indicated that he will reduce everything except the defense budget, and this strategy will result in the need to cut relatively inexpensive social programs, while costly military projects continue to expand. Furthermore, like Reagan, Obama made a deal with the Russians to reduce nuclear arms as he pours money into the development of more advanced weapons.
Another inheritance from Reagan is the belief that tax cuts will produce jobs and an economic recovery. What most people do not seem to know is that a third of the $800 billion stimulus bill of 2009 went to tax cuts, and these reductions have helped to add to the deficit. This supply-side approach to economic growth will only result in a greater income disparity, as the wealthiest Americans keep more of their money and everyone else either loses their jobs or sees their salaries stagnate.
Finally, Obama's "Race to the Top" educational policy not only replicates the worst aspects of George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind," but it feeds off of the demonization of minority students and helps to fortify Reagan's de-funding of public education. The early effects of this educational policy are the closing of hundreds of urban schools and the propping up charters and private schools.
While Obama often uses progressive rhetoric and does push for some left-leaning policies, these liberal elements often act as a cover for his conservative agenda. It is ironic that Reagan, the great conservative believer in reducing government and controlling spending, watched over one of the biggest increases in the national debt; meanwhile, Obama has now become a deficit hawk and has decided against a second stimulus plan. While it is not too late for Obama to take a more progressive stand on some of these major issues, it is clear that he is being labeled a socialist at the same time he reinforces Reagan's brand of conservative ideology.
What Obama needs to do is to push for a progressive jobs bill and to make sure unemployment benefits are extended. Moreover, Obama has to attack the deficit by reducing the military budget, and he can start this process by pulling troops out of Afghanistan. While the Republicans don't seemed bothered by the fact that they are causing a second recession by refusing to send aid to states, Obama can pay for a second stimulus by eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. If he does not pursue these policies, progressives should begin to look for a new Democratic candidate to challenge Obama in 2012.