Well, these terms are all relative. If you compare Barack Obama to Donald Trump, he seems especially liberal. If you compare him to Karl Marx, perhaps not so much. I think of Obama as a Democrat who had some liberal tendencies, but more often than not he tended to be a Democrat who had a more moderate approach in his approach, manner and temperament. Obama seemed early on to reject the assumptions some people had that he was overtly to the left – ‘liberal’ is maybe not the best way to encompass what he represented on the political spectrum.
If we go back to Obama’s entrance on the national stage, in 2004, when he gave that famous speech at the Democratic convention when he was running to be the senator from Illinois, his said there was no red America, no blue America, but one America. It was not a liberal speech – it was a Democratic speech, a speech which suggested that he could bring the country together. Democrats are generally thought to be more liberal than Republicans, but I think Obama saw himself as a pragmatist – maybe a liberal pragmatist, but he seemed uncomfortable when the conversation became too leftist. I think he’s a bit annoyed with the left, actually, and he demonstrated that frustration on numerous occasions.
"It was not a liberal speech – it was a Democratic speech, a speech which suggested that he could bring the country together"
When the Senate wouldn’t confirm his Supreme Court pick, what he did was, I think, typical Obama. They weren’t going to confirm anybody, but he put forward a moderate to make it look like he was trying to be reasonable. Someone more closely identified with the left would have said: I’m going to put forth the most idealistically leftist candidate I can, because they won’t confirm them anyway. But Obama decided to play the game, and it didn’t make any difference. One of the things that makes it hard to label him a liberal is that he seemed to be chasing the approval of conservatives for a significant amount of his presidency.
When I look at Barack Obama, he’s a guy who has had to negotiate two competing racial identities in terms of his own background. His entire life, he had used his personality to bridge divides, and he had been very successful in doing that. But realised, a bit late in his presidency, that not everyone was open to being charmed by him. His pragmatism – that’s who he is. The only election he ever lost was to Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, when he ran for Congress in 2000. During that contest, many people saw him as this Ivy League-educated outsider who wasn’t part of the community – and in many ways wasn’t black enough.
He became much more assertive and aggressive in the last two years of his presidency, which I think were the strongest for that reason. We started to get a better idea of what his real passions were. That moment when he said he wasn’t getting any co-operation from Congress, so he would do what he could on his own, through executive orders, on issues like immigration.
He’s a Democrat, and he’s associated with liberal politics, but I’ve never seen him as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal like Bernie Sanders.