If you are looking not only for clues into Barack Obama’s character but for a definition of what his presidency will mean to the country, then the speech on fiscal policy that he delivered at George Washington University the Wednesday before last is the most significant one he has ever given. It is, in its own way, an astonishing document, alive with the themes that undergirded his Philadelphia speech on race and his Nobel Prize acceptance, on the tragic enmeshment of American limitations and American strength. Obama was responding mostly to the Republican budget plan, and he understood exactly what its author, Representative Paul Ryan, had in his sights: “This vision,” Obama said, “is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.” And yet, having defined the fight so starkly, Obama delivered a plea for compromise. He ended a stirring defense of the welfare state by explaining his plans to gut it. Then he said that even this proposed $2 trillion cut in government spending was only a starting point for negotiation: “I don’t expect the details in any final agreement to look exactly like the approach I laid out today,” he said. “This is a democracy; that’s not how things work.” There were notes of deference, and passivity: If Obama believed that his vision of society was at stake, why place it so squarely on the partisan bargaining table—or why not at least begin with a stronger gambit? This was, at any rate, the point of view of one particular strain of liberal reaction, whose position was summed up with poignant resignation by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “I could live with this as an end result,” he wrote. “If this becomes the left pole, and the center is halfway between this and Ryan, then no.”
For the first two years of the Obama administration, Krugman has been building, in his columns and on his blog, not just a critique of this presidency but something grander and more expansively detailed, something closer to an alternate architecture for what Obamaism might be. The project has remade Krugman’s public image, as if he had spent years becoming a chemically isolate form of himself—first a moderate, then an anti-Bush partisan, and now the leading exponent of a kind of liberal purism against which the compromises of the White House might be judged. Krugman’s counterfactual Obama would have provided far more stimulus money and would have nationalized Citigroup and Bank of America. He would have written off Republicans and worked only with Democrats to fashion a health-care reform bill that included a so-called public option. The president of Krugman’s dreams would have made his singular long-term goal the preservation of the welfare state and the middle-class society it was designed to create.