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."
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 h—'s the presidency for?" The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, Job Corps, Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Public Broadcasting Act followed. (Think of Johnson 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 set out a second-term agenda of stunning humility. 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." There was no mention of global warming, though Obama once predicted that his "presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change."
Bill Clinton had the capability of weaving an agenda of modest economic proposals into a narrative of Democratic moderation and responsibility. Obama's agenda just seems weary, following a health care victory that cost him his House majority and exhausted his political capital. It is likely that Obama's main second-term accomplishment would be the defense of his main first-term achievement — a health law that remains too unpopular to make a centerpiece of his campaign. Obama has largely set out to protect past ambitions, not project new ones.
This may be the fate of any political liberal during a fiscal crisis. It is hard to be Lyndon Johnson with a trillion-dollar deficit. But the Obama agenda also reflects a broader shift in American liberalism, which has become reactive. American liberals often defend unreformed, unsustainable health entitlements — even though these commitments place increasing burdens on the young to benefit those who are older and better off. They often defend the unrestricted right to abortion — even though it represents a contraction of the circle of social inclusion and protection. They often defend the educational status quo — even though it is one of the nation's main sources of racial and economic injustice.
Others have termed this "reactionary liberalism." It is more the protection of accumulated interests than the application of creative reform to new problems. In the place of idealism, there is often anger. When Obama failed in his first debate, liberals were generally not critical that he lacked idealism. They were angry that he wasn't sufficiently angry. The fondest hopes and dreams of many on the left were apparently fulfilled in Joe Biden's sneer.
As a conservative, I can't endorse every policy of the Great Society — some were essential, others counterproductive. But America was better off because liberals called attention to those in the dawn, the twilight and the shadows of life. And American politics is worse off because liberalism has become a shadow of its former self.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.