Alex Massie

Tory Obama? Really?

Text settings

Is Barack Obama really a closet Tory? That's the question Andrew Sullivan asks in the light of this passage from David Remnick's new Obama biography. Speaking about race in America and his election, Obama says:

"America evolves, and sometimes those evolutions are painful. People don't progress in a straight line. Countries don't progress in a straight line. So there's enormous excitement and interest around the election of an African-American President. It's inevitable that there's going to be some backlash, potentially, to what that means—not in a crudely racist way, necessarily. But it signifies change, in the same way that immigration signifies change, in the same way that a shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy signifies change, in the same way that the Internet signifies change and terrorism signifies change. And so I think that nobody should have ever been under the illusion—certainly I wasn't, and I was very explicit about this when I campaigned—that by virtue of my election, suddenly race problems would be solved or conversely that the American people would want to spend all their time talking about race. I think it signifies progress, but the progress preceded the election. The progress facilitated the election.

The progress has to do with the day-to-day interactions of people who are working together and going to church together and teaching their kids to treat everybody equally and fairly. All those little interactions that are taking place across the country add up to a more just, more tolerant, society. But that's an ongoing process. It's one that requires each of us, every day, to try to expand our sense of understanding. And there are going to be folks who don't want to promote that understanding because they're afraid of the future. They don't like that evolution. They think, in some fashion, that it will disadvantage them or, in some sense, diminishes the past. I tend to be fairly forgiving about the anxiety that people feel about change because I think, if you're human, you recognize that in yourself."

As Andrew puts it:

Here's a truly conservative understanding of change - its inevitability, its concurring sense of loss, a polity's need to adapt and integrate it. Notice that it isn't reactionary; notice that it flees from abstractions; notice that it sees the grand actions of high politics as inextricable from the shifts among the "little platoons" that truly make up society. Notice the embrace of evolution over revolution. Yes, this is a liberal Democrat in name. But in actuality, he is so far away from these crude pieces of shorthand.

Well yes. And no. But the fact that the question is even asked is another indication of how difficult it can be to categorise Obama. (Difficult to categorise him accurately, I mean.) I suspect that Andrew has a point, at least when it comes to questions of race and identity. There, I imagine, Obama does possess what might be termed a Tory temperament, not least because in these areas experience has brought the President to this properly modest, if generous, conclusion. (One with which I more or less agree, incidentally.)

But that's personal, not political (in as much as race can ever be neatly seperated from politics). It's true that there are moments when Obama speaks that one catches an echo of Disraeli's personal motto "Nothing is difficult to the brave" and true too that there are times when, in terms of temperament at least, one could view Obama's presidency as an American manifestation of the old saw about "Tory Men but Whig Measures". But temperament is, as Andrew knows, only part of the matter.

At least in terms of domestic policy I think one may say that the great health care bill the Democrats have passed would have sorely disappointed the Obama of 2000 for whom it would have been a disappointing capitulation to the same old vested interests and the politics of fear and misinformation. Much of the left still thinks that, of course, and it's evidence of how Obama, unlike the left, has developed an appreciation of what is and, more pertinently, what is neither prudent nor politically feasible.

Furthermore, if one is to redefine Toryism as simply a subset of pragmatism then perhaps we're defining matters in a less than completely helpful fashion. Obama is a pragmatist and the pragmatist is careful not to rule anything out until the point at which it becomes clear that whatever that anything may be it's not something that will advance his ambitions.

Nevertheless, if Obama wants to be a transformational President of real consequence then, almost by definition, he cannot be any more a Tory than was Margaret Thatcher. Like her he will be a radical (I don't use the term in any pejorative sense, incidentally). And in the American context, in as much as these labels can ever be transferred from one side of the atlantic to another, I think the true Tory approach to matters such as healthcare would instinctively be federalist, not federal. And not just in healthcare neither.

But I see little evidence of modesty of ambition in Obama's political agenda. It may be that he's right and that, in many areas, the federalist boat has sailed in any case - but I'm not convinced he ever wanted to be on board anyway or thought it seaworthy in the first place.

So, sure, I think you can make a case for Obama the small-c conservative in some matters of temperament but temperament is not the same as instinct and policy is a different matter entirely.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietytories