Is Barack Obama a Tory?
- 24 September 2012
- From the section Magazine
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.
"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.
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.