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The Leftward Drift of the Democratic Party

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Tali Mendelberg and Bennett Butler:

A true measure of a president’s priorities lies hidden in plain sight in his budget proposals. Under that standard, Mr. Obama has been more committed to communities like Ferguson than any Democratic president in the past half century.

By looking at what percentage of the budget presidents propose to spend to fight poverty, we can compare their degree of commitment.

While Mr. Obama advocated for the Affordable Care Act as a way to assist poor African-Americans, for example, we can’t put that on an effort scale and compare it to President Bill Clinton’s advocacy for his health care plan. Our method also avoids the problem of accounting for forces beyond presidents’ control.

Using this method, we find that President Obama attempted to deliver far more than his counterparts. The Congressional Budget Office’s inflation-adjusted numbers show that Mr. Obama sought to spend far more on means-tested anti-poverty programs than other first-term Democratic presidents. The targeted needs include food, housing, education, health care and cash.

Mr. Obama earmarked 17 percent of his budget for these needs, versus Mr. Clinton’s 12 percent and Jimmy Carter’s 8 percent. These presidents all faced economic challenges, although of different degrees and strength. Each was committed to the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged. But Mr. Obama made good on that commitment far more concretely.

Admittedly, this metric does not account for the most important quality of a presidency, the content of his speeches (or, more accurately, a willfully selective recollection of the content of his speeches.) But for people actually interested in the question, I find the idea that the Democratic Party is to the right of where it was in 1975 — let alone 1994 — incomprehensible.

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