Our president is caught up in the eternal tension between the two, according to Shelby Steele:
(Health care reform) was a chance for Mr. Obama not just to be a part of history but to make history. Here he could have an achievement commensurate with his own historical significance. To have left off health care and taken up jobs would have left him a caretaker rather than a history-maker. So he hung in with health care and today it can be said: Barack Obama has signed the most significant piece of social legislation in 45 years—achieving something that has eluded every president since FDR.
A historic figure making history, this is emerging as an over-arching theme—if not obsession—in the Obama presidency. In Iowa, a day after signing health care into law, he put himself into competition with history. If history shapes men, “We still have the power to shape history.” But this adds up to one thing: He is likely to be the most liberal president in American history. And, oddly, he may be a more effective liberal precisely because his liberalism is something he uses more than he believes in. As the far left constantly reminds us, he is not really a true believer. Rather liberalism is his ticket to grandiosity and to historical significance.
Of the two great societal goals—freedom and “the good”—freedom requires a conservatism, a discipline of principles over the good, limited government, and so on. No way to grandiosity here. But today’s liberalism is focused on “the good” more than on freedom. And ideas of “the good” are often a license to transgress democratic principles in order to reach social justice or to achieve more equality or to lessen suffering. The great political advantage of modern liberalism is its offer of license on the one hand and moral innocence—if not superiority—on the other. Liberalism lets you force people to buy health insurance and feel morally superior as you do it. Power and innocence at the same time.
Steele’s larger point is that the president lacks a defining vision of what he wants to do as much as a desire to do big things, that vector is less important than scale.
That it’s really, at the end of the day, all about him.