Is Barack Obama a Tory?

Benjamin Disraeli and Barack Obama Is Barack Obama the next Benjamin Disraeli?

Does Barack Obama's style of leadership make him a Tory in the traditional British style? Several British political watchers debate.

Though his American critics often accuse the US President of being a socialist or Marxist, some observers have recently come to another conclusion: Barack Obama is a Tory.

Though President Obama is a Democrat, and thus more likely to embrace left-leaning political positions than the American Right, he's drawn repeated comparisons to members of England's Conservative party.

For some expatriates, the president's centrist response to an increasingly activist Republican opposition makes him a conservative in the mould of the Tory party.

"The fit isn't always going to be perfect, but it's more of a guide to a certain aspect of a politician's temperament and character," says Alex Massie, who writes for the Spectator in London.

"There's a deep pragmatism for Tories - they don't appreciate the need for change until it's forced upon them, but once it is they want to ensure the change is as smooth and undisruptive as possible."

He wrote a piece for the Spectator drawing the comparison, and cited several examples of Obama's embrace of consistency and tradition.

These ranged from keeping George Bush's pick of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, to his healthcare reform plan, which is based on more people adopting the existing insurance framework, rather than building a brand-new single-payer system.

"His plan focused on what can we get through Congress, what can we do that will actually work," Massie told the BBC.

"Viewed from a distance it looked pragmatic rather than an ideological effort at reform.

"It's an incremental approach to policy making based on a combination of evidence-based policies and sensitive to political realities and concerns."

But while pragmatism may be a hallmark of Tory politics, it's an American necessity on both sides of the aisle.

Start Quote

Obama is the conservative option, dealing with emergent problems with pragmatic calm and modest innovation”

End Quote Andrew Sullivan Newsweek/The Daily Beast

"I think there's no question that he's a pragmatic politician, and I think he has seen the need to be bipartisan at least in rhetoric and maybe in practice, but I wouldn't over-emphasise this, in that the US is a very different kind of political system," says James Cronin, a professor of history at Boston College.

Unlike the UK government, in which a majority government has more power to push through their own agenda, the system of checks and balances in the US requires more compromise and deal-making to get anything done.

"In America it's much more difficult to go for the maximum, much more necessary to bargain and do something in a necessary way," says Cronin.

"A lot of [Obama's] pragmatism was dictated," to him by the necessities of US government.

Still, many British ex-pats see in Obama a conservative spirit that would fit right in at Westminster.

Andrew Sullivan - a passionate Obama supporter - calls the candidate the " the conservative reformist of my dreams".

He's framed the current presidential election as one between Romney - whom he sees as man with an Ayn Rand-like philosophy of personal responsibility to the point of divisiveness - and Obama, a Benjamin Disraeli-like candidate, whom Sullivan views as believing in the obligation of the coherence of the nation.

In another essay on his blog The Dish, Sullivan writes: "Against a radical right, reckless, populist insurgency, Obama is the conservative option, dealing with emergent problems with pragmatic calm and modest innovation.

"He seeks, as a good Oakeshottian would, to reform the country's policies in order to regain the country's past virtues."

But Obama's policies and politics are too left-leaning for Obama to be seriously considered a Tory, says Richard Aldous, author of Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship.

To him, a more appropriate historical comparison is between Obama and Liberal Party politicians, including HH Asquith.

That prime minister was popular in the London social scene while playing it cool politically, and instituted several social welfare reforms during his term from 1908-1916.

Big "C" v small "c" conservatives

Both the UK and the US have proper Conservative parties, that trend to the political right. But Obama has gained a reputation as a "small c" conservative, someone who is politically pragmatic and unwilling to make major shake-ups, even if it's in the service of a more progressive agenda.

Writes Noah Milman at The American Conservative: "The Obama Administration has been a quintessentially small-"c" conservative one, in that it has tried its best to preserve the status quo in just about every area... Its response to the financial crisis was centred on securing the financial position of the large banks... Its approach to foreign policy has been to try to preserve American hegemony at minimal cost."

The healthcare law seems to fit more in that mould, says Aldous.

After all, Obama initially wanted a much more radical change, adopting a single-payer system more akin to the UK's National Health Service.

"One of the defining characteristics of Toryism is change by degree rather than radical change. The healthcare legislation doesn't seem to be a quintessential Tory way of doing it," says Aldous, even in its modified, more conservative state.

"It's a classic bit of liberal reform - it's about making the system more efficient, but it's also about fundamentally changing the way in which society operates."

Still, the comparisons keep coming.

Walter Russell Mead, the editor of The American Interest magazine, recently wrote that: "Like the classic British Tory, our current President believes in a strong state that advances a moral agenda for the nation, collective national guidance through the Great and the Good, and he is an instinctive believer in compromise and 'one nation' solidarity between the rich and the poor."

And it was impossible to miss the affinity that Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Barack Obama seem to have for one another.

"There are an awful lot of people in the Conservative party in Britain that would have voted for Obama than [2008 challenger John] McCain," says Massie.

But Obama and his team aren't going after the hypothetical support of British Conservatives.

Their focus now is not on historical comparisons or international politics, but on how many American voters they can get to support them come election time.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    No taxation without repesentation as part of the call for independence from British rule. Quite right too.

    As a Brit, what I see are Republicans who purport to be representatives and pay little or no taxes at all.

    I think it's time Americans woke up to their own history and called to account their Republican representative, Mitt Romney, running for President who wants everyone else to pay tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Politically what is considered left and right in the US and the UK, respectively, is very informative. The Republicans are far more right wing than the Tories, while the Democrats are less left wing than Labour.

    Obama, like most US Democrats, I think, should be understood as a liberal; between Conservative and Labour, though in current politics probably instinctively slightly closer to the latter

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Interesting - I always voted conservative when living in England for 40 years, but voted democratic in the US over the past 30 years. Of course this is partly because the republicans are bigoted and seem to elect idiots into office. The Bush/Cheney/Rice/Ashcroft bunch was a classic example. They allowed 9/11 to happen then had the gall to claim they 'kept the US safe'! Really?

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    To my mind it always seems that the Left has all the best arguments and is hard to deny at a purely theoretical level. The problem is that it tends to disintegrate at the practical level and no amount of fake-"fraternalism" can overcome the human desire to matter how many you kill!

    The Left is all about what's right! The Right tends to be about what's actually possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    You have to understand the political structure. When I was in the UK I was midle of the spectrum and voted Tory. The Democrats in the US would be considered further to the right than the Tories. So you an see where the Republicans sit. In Europe they would be seen so far to the right as to be out of sight. And that is really scary!

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    "I wish we did have something akin to the US Republicans in the UK."

    Useless, bigoted, mostly white middle-class men serving their own selfish interests? No thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    "England's Conservative party"

    I'm sorry, are Scottish or Welsh people not allowed to vote Conservative?

    Please sort it out BBC and provide a bit of neutrality for once.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Yeah right. Maybe a wet Tory like David Cameron or Ted Heath and as to foreign policy he's much like Neville Chamberlain -certainly not like any other Conservative British Prime Minister. As a Benjamin Disraeli fan, I find it insulting to compare them. Barrack Obama is a classic tax & spend Laborite. He isn't like William Pitt 2. Get a grip. Even Baldwin new the mood of the people better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    #179KY_Red: I never used the word racist. But, if the shoes fit, wear it. Not all Obama's critics are racist. But, to deny questioning his citizenship, calling him a muslim, a liar during the state of the union & an unprecedented disrespect for him had no racial overtone, is to bury one's head in the sand. I never said he was more like the presidents you named. I said most of his predecessor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Regarding health care
    Obama did not stand up for universal health care+
    thats why USA does not have it today

    Its strange to hear Britain write articles like this giving so much credit to Obama
    for doing the wrong thing

    Clearly Britain doesn't have a clue about whats really going on in America b/c your article has got everything backwards

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Socialism is Communism plain and simple! And we have almost half a century of track record of just how good "socialism" is!

    The people who think the state owes them everything so that they can sit on their ever expanding back sides at home all day have no right to demand anything from the state until they start contributing back for the "support" they get.

    Socialism is a very dangerous ideoligy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    @180 'BluesBerry'
    Please don't be so despondent. Voting is never futile. For every time you don't vote there is a chink of opportunity for those who wish there was no voting at all - except for the select few.

    Voting is crucial. Many died to fight for it, and many died to retain it. Always remember that dreadful history in our democracies we take for granted today, however imperfect. Regards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    I don't think I could ever describe tory policies as 'pragmatic', you just have to look at the fact they believe in homeopathy but not climate change to see that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    180 "Voting is an exercise in futility"

    No - the voting system is carefully controlled to give the illusion of choice BUT the logic of your comment is that there is no point in voting. Then they win.

    Voting CAN work, but not if people believe the propaganda and continue to vote for what they are offered. Even spoiled ballots, in great enough numbers, could trigger rapid change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    #179 cont. Obama languishes at

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    @172 "liberty" and "liberal" are not the same words. In the US we would call Obama a moderate Democrat. However, much of his first term was centered around getting reelected for his second. Sometimes I think the US would be better served by a single 6 year term presidency than two potential 4 year terms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    39.As for our Republicans think BNP.without the nazi trappings.

    So, UKIP, basically.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    "Has anyone ever wondered why in [] "the land of the free" the term "liberal" is considered an insult?"

    This requires an understanding of the how the constitution/bill of rights were formulated and why. LIBERTY and REPUBLIC in the context of 1776 has nothing to do with the current parties.

    They should be sued for false advertising and misreprensentation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    What does it matter?
    Voting is an exercise in futility – at best to make you content you have done your civic duty; at worst, providing your approval to subjugation under corporate-financier domination. The constitutional representative governance we believe we live under exists only in your imagination.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    @177 Classic Obama supporter 'defense' of Obama is that is you disagree with him you are a hater or a racist or likely both. Reminds me of Orwell.
    Just accept he is not 'more liked' than his predecessors - Clinton and Reagan may claim that but not Obama (


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