President Obama waves to crowd after his Inaugural speech on Monday. (Scott Andrews/Associated Press)

Zachary A. Goldfarb covers economic policy and the White House for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @goldfarb.

If there was one word that was used most often to describe President Obama’s second inaugural address Monday, it was “liberal.” Obama supposedly tossed away the post-partisan efforts of his first term and embraced big government, fully committing himself to the cause of gay rights and showing a Gore-like dedication to the climate-change fight.

Yet the next day, the White House expressed surprise at the notion that the president’s speech amounted to an affirmation of liberalism. Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that he rejected “the idea that this was an ‘ism’ speech.” He added, “It’s on behalf of ideas that represent who we are as Americans.”

In a narrow sense, Carney was right. Opinion polls show that on almost all of the major positions Obama espoused in his speech — entitlements, immigration, climate change and same-sex marriage — a majority of Americans agree with him.

By that measure, Obama did not advance a liberal agenda. A consequential one, certainly, but one that reflects centrist views or center-left ones at most. The agenda seems liberal only when judged against the liberal-conservative divide we’re used to in Washington.

Over the past four years, politics in the nation’s capital has been consumed by the fight between the president and tea party Republicans. But because Obama is far closer to the center than the tea party is, what counts as middle ground in Washington is more conservative than the political center nationwide. In this setting, even centrist proposals face mighty legislative hurdles.

Beyond the capital’s divisions, citizens across the country resist the “liberal” label — even though polls showthat they tend to hold liberal positions on individual issues. Political scientists call this “symbolic” vs. “operational” ideology.

According to one poll, 74 percent of Americans support regulating greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. According to another, 68 percent oppose cutting spending on Medicaid, the public health insurance program for the poor. And other polls show that more than half of Americans favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a vast majority oppose cuts in education or transportation funding, and a slim majority support same-sex marriage.

Obama’s inaugural speech sounded liberal because he offered the kind of robust defense of government’s role in the nation’s life that has seldom been heard from Democratic politicians after President Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.”

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few,” Obama said Monday. “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.”

The speech may have been his bluntest declaration of these ideas, but it was no ideological breakthrough. Obama has been pushing this approach forcefully for the past year and a half.

It started in the summer of 2011, when his post-partisan efforts reached their end after he failed to strike a grand bargain with Republicans on the national debt. He then increasingly adopted an ideological message. In Osawatomie, Kan., that winter, he mounted an attack on income inequality — a subject of much interest to liberals — even while his proposed solutions (modestly higher taxes on the wealthy to preserve the services that the middle and lower classes depend on) were decidedly mainstream.

Positions Obama supports that most Americans also support

One of the most provocative lines in his inaugural address — equating the fight for gay rights at Stonewall with the fight for racial equality at Selma and the fight for gender equality at Seneca Falls — first appeared last May, when Obama delivered the commencement address at Barnard College, though it was little noticed then.

In some ways, one could regard Republicans as more ideologically daring than Obama. On many economic and social issues — whether trimming social services such as Medicaid or opposing any type of legal union for gay couples — the GOP backs positions that lack majority support in the country. But Republicans have shown a willingness to press forward on such ideas, which express moral or ideological convictions and appeal to a narrower slice of the electorate.

In his speech, by contrast, Obama hewed closely to public opinion. He defended “the commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security” — but did not propose expanding the safety net.

“Judged on an absolute scale, going back to Roosevelt, that’s a pretty centrist or conservative position: ‘I’m opposed to cutting it,’ ” said James Stimson, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Back in the 1970s, the two parties jostled about who could be more generous in dispersing Social Security.”

Obama could yet advance a truly liberal agenda, proposing policies that match the tenor of his inaugural address but go beyond its substance.

“If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal,” he said in his speech. To follow up, he could call for a federal law enshrining same-sex marriage as a right.

He said that “we are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.” To increase equality of opportunity, Obama could call for higher taxes on everyone to pay for universal child care or a free college education for any qualified high school senior.

Such proposals, of course, might be politically impractical and even counterproductive, undermining support for intermediate positions that are less ambitious but more feasible in today’s Washington.

Many would say they would be bad public policy, too. But even if he agrees with such proposals in principle, Obama has tended to follow a more pragmatic course, looking for laws he can actually pass or executive actions he can realistically take, rather than waiting for a perfect solution.

The president’s embrace of same-sex marriage in his inaugural address illustrates how he emulates public views, even as he uses terms that sound bold and progressive. He said on a questionnaire in 1996 that he supported gay marriage, but he later said he backed only civil unions. His announcement of his support for same-sex marriage last year — which he carefully said was an expression of his personal view — tracked closely with public opinion as a majority of Americans came to share the same view.

“This is a nice example of how political leaders simultaneously lead and follow the public — by selectively pushing against the elastic boundaries of public acceptance, insofar as their existing stock of political capital allows,” said Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Two other issues — one from Obama’s first term and another that he hinted will be a second-term priority — show how notions of what counts as liberal can easily shift.

In 2010, Obama achieved what Democrats had sought for generations: a law expanding health-care coverage to most Americans. In opinion polls, the Affordable Care Act was deeply unpopular, yet Americans supported many individual provisions.

“Health reform in general was unpopular because it seemed to violate conservative principles,” said Chris Ellis, a professor of political science at Bucknell University. “But the individual parts of it were popular because they did things that people like: provide more access to health insurance for the poor, tax wealthier people to pay for things.”

Yet the central mechanism of Obamacare — the individual mandate, which Republicans blasted as a massive liberal exercise of power — began as a conservative idea.

Obama’s call to battle climate change in his second term underscores a similar phenomenon. His position sounds liberal because it appeases the environmental base of the Democratic Party and because Republicans have increasingly opposed efforts to stem global warming. But there wasn’t always such an ideological gap between the parties. In the 2008 presidential race, Obama and his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), had almost exactly the same plan to help solve the problem of a warming planet.

Looking at this history and today’s opinion polls, it would seem pretty easy to find consensus in America on a lot of big issues — not just “liberal” or “conservative” solutions.

Then again, in Washington, everything needs a label.

Zachary A. Goldfarb covers economic policy and the White House for The Washington Post.

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