The Has-been

Yes He Is

Obama calls himself a New Democrat and shows what it means.

For conservatives still trying to fit Barack Obama into their old tax-and-spend-liberal box, Tuesday was a very bad day. In the morning, the president gave a tough-minded education reform speech demanding more accountability from schools, teachers, students, and parents. The same afternoon, he brought members of the House New Democrat Coalition to the White House and told them, “I am a New Democrat.” According to Politico, Obama went on to describe himself as a fiscally responsible, pro-growth Democrat who supports free and fair trade and opposes protectionism.

So much for the ridiculous talk-radio bid to dub Obama a socialist. As Ruth Marcus points out in today’s Washington Post, “The notion that President Obama has lurched to the left since his inauguration and is governing as an unreconstructed liberal is bunk.” From his education reform agenda to his team of pragmatists to his heavy emphasis on responsibility, Obama is leading the country the way he promised he wouldneither to the left nor right but on a path that’s new and different.

Full disclosure: I’ve always loved the term New Democrat and in the early ‘90s launched a magazine by that name for the Democratic Leadership Council,  the organization I now head. The label and the philosophy behind it were an attempt to think anew and move past the ideological logjams of that era.

But that was then, and this is now. The job of my group and other progressive, reform-minded organizations isn’t to label Barack Obama or to hold him to some old standard—it’s to help him enact his reform agenda and succeed at the standard he has set for himself. The challenges of 2009 are different from the challenges of 1992, and what it means to be a New Democrat now cannot be the same as what it meant back then.

Obama has always steered clear of labels, with good reason. One of the great hopes of his campaign and his presidency is the prospect of a new, post-partisan politics that leaves behind old debates and moves beyond old boundaries. That approach has become all the more necessary in the midst of an economic crisis that demands new answers and eschews rigid ideology in favor of doing what works.

The president is right that old labels don’t mean anything, but new labels do—and in Obama’s capable hands, the term New Democrat can take on new meaning. As Obama and others have observed, the traditional terms of the ideological debate—liberal and progressive, moderate and centrist, conservative and right-wing—are stale and imprecise. Obama has the opportunity to define a governing philosophy for our time on his own terms.

In his campaign and as president, Obama has put forth the core of his new philosophy for a new time. In January, he described it as “a grand bargain.” “Our challenge is going to be identifying what works and putting more money into that, eliminating things that don’t work, and making things that we have more efficient,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have to give. Everybody’s going to have to have some skin in the game.”

Obama’s inaugural address, his joint address to Congress, and his budget all have reinforced that philosophy. On Sunday, the Washington Post dedicated 1,600 words to the president’s use of the word responsibility—another sign that the “new era of responsibility” Obama promised is here to stay.

Obama’s impressive education speech yesterday provided further proof of his bold agenda for reform. The president explained why transforming education is central to America’s economic future and outlined several smart steps to make it happen. In the economic recovery bill, he secured $100 billion to invest in education. On Tuesday, he committed once again to making sure that investment brings real change. As Rahm Emanuel told the Post, “The resources come with a bow tied around them that says ‘Reform.’ “

Obama called for rewarding good teachers and making it easier to remove bad ones, challenged states to stop capping the number of charter schools, urged states to adopt rigorous common standards, and repeated his pledge to cut the dropout rate in high schools and college. He also reminded the nation that more resources and more accountability from schools, teachers, and students won’t change our education system unless Americans take more responsibility as parents.

On education, Obama showed a path out of gridlock that could work as well in solving other entrenched problems. “For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline,” he said Tuesday. “Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

The tectonic plates on which the 20th century was built are shifting in the 21st. In the 1930s, New Dealers like FDR had to save capitalism from itself. In the 1990s, New Democrats like Bill Clinton had to modernize progressive government. Over the next few years, Barack Obama has to do both at the same time. For that, as Obama made clear again yesterday, a new president with a new approach is exactly what we need.