I keep hearing that Obama is trying to have it both ways by playing the post-partisan unity theme while being pretty clearly progressive on policy. Well, I don’t know about Obama (I REALLY don’t) but I don’t like the question. I think it sets up a false dichotomy.
You can be pretty damn ideological and still promote “unity” – and not solely in that self-serving, cynical way that politicians routinely do. Surely, you can have passionate views while being genuinely committed to persuading rather than strong-arming others into supporting you? It is even possible that you don’t arrogate to your self the right to implement your plans even in the event that you don’t succeed in persuading others. You might even be open to persuasion yourself. No, really. You might.
Unlike a lot of people, I don’t mind political labels. I’m a feminist, for instance. (That’s right, I said it — you wanna piece of me? Go ahead, bring it on!) But labels are like any other word and it’s important to consider what they mean in each context. Labels like “progressive” and “conservative” too often conflate ideological impulses with policy platforms. That might work for wonks (at least the particular wonks whose agendas are served by the conflation), but most people don’t worry so much about process. People are attracted to ideologies because of the issues they purport to address and the outcomes they promise to deliver rather than the set of approaches that they advocate. This leads to ill considered faith in the approaches advocated by the candidate who is most passionate about the problem one cares about. This in turn creates the false impression that those approaches are part of what people care about.
But I think most people are actually pretty open to different ways of achieving their goals. As long as the goals themselves aren’t trivialized. For example, a lot of poor people – and those who care about them – might support less welfare and a freer market if someone made a persuasive case to them that this works to reduce their poverty (not just make their poverty look less dire by citing rises in “average” income courtesy of bigger Wall Street bonuses). I’m not taking a position on the degree to which free markets can cure poverty; that’s a separate – and far more complicated – discourse. I am saying that people whose main concern is poverty aren’t going to be “united” with the people whose main concern is commercial freedom by any argument that essentially prioritizes one of those concerns and gives lip service to the other as an after thought.