Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2008 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan 5769
Forget fringe, Obama taking the center road
By Dick Polman
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | If we are to believe the cartoon about Barack Obama that was sketched by the Republicans during their autumn death spiral, the president-elect will surely hang Lenin's portrait in the White House and conspire with his new Treasury secretary, unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers, to confiscate private property and transfer all personal wealth to the dregs of society.
That was the GOP's charming way of warning that Obama as president would hew to a partisan liberal agenda; indeed, the defeated party would be thrilled if Obama lurched sharply leftward, since that would lift Republican spirits and provide its members with a rallying cry during their time of woe.
In their dreams. He will not prove to be such an easy target.
By temperament and instinct, Obama is far more likely to govern from the center, to situate himself, politically speaking, at ground zero. On Tuesday night, he captured the middle - self-described "moderate" voters (the largest segment of the electorate) supported Obama over John McCain by 21 percentage points - and, in terms of political viability, the middle is ultimately where a president needs to be.
Folks in the middle are fed up with ideological partisanship, the ongoing Washington strife between left and right - and Obama addressed their disgust on election night, when he urged that we all "resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long." He wants to reach out and find common ground, if only to dampen the potential ire of his opponents (thus hewing to Michael Corleone's advice in "The Godfather - Part II" that it is wise to "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer").
Indeed, Obama's top strategist has already signaled Obama's likely approach; two months ago, in The Atlantic, David Axelrod said Obama would feel "a special responsibility to try and forge coalitions ... because, ultimately, effective governance requires it in the long term. I think he would be a mediating force against those who suggest that we should simply overrun the other side on issue after issue."
Well, that isn't necessarily what liberal Democratic lawmakers, activists, and blogosphere rooters want to hear. They all feel newly empowered after eight years on the outs, and many believe that monumental policy strides - on health-care insurance, on energy independence - can be made by maximizing Democratic unity and stiffing the outgunned minority.
In fact, there is already some grousing that Obama might be too conciliatory. True to the spirit of Democrats, they didn't even wait until he was elected.
On Tuesday afternoon, after an Obama emissary told Fox News that Obama as president-elect would seek "to reach out to the millions of people who are voting for John McCain," liberal author/activist David Sirota blogged on salon.com: "Ummm, what about the millions of people who, ya know, voted for Obama? Don't we count for something? ... The uprising that this election season has stoked will need to become all the more intense starting tomorrow, if we are to make sure (that Obama) doesn't spend the first days after the election constructing another conservative presidency."
Here's the "uprising" in action: In the wake of reports that Obama might name Lawrence Summers as Treasury secretary, liberals (who view Summers as a financial-establishment toady) struck back. An embarrassing memo, written by Summers in 1991, surfaced last Thursday on the liberal Huffington Post Web site. It turns out Summers, as a World Bank economist, encouraged the dumping of toxic waste in Africa - this prompting the Web site to warn that if Obama taps Summers, "he will send a dispiriting message to governments of developing countries ... just as they have begun to look at the United States as a beacon of hope."
Some liberal commentators are also upset that Obama might name some Republicans to his Cabinet, and they find Obama's bipartisan tone to be a tad ironic, given the fact that the president-elect, during his Senate career, has rarely worked with the Republicans on anything controversial.
It's always possible that Obama's conciliatory talk will cease once he is exposed to the cross pressures of governing in an ideologically polarized climate. Candidate George W. Bush vowed in 2000 to "change the tone" in Washington, and we know how that turned out. Candidate Bill Clinton vowed in 1992 to minimize the left-right strife - he called it "brain-dead politics" - yet he would soon shelve or postpone many of his centrist ideas (welfare reform, middle-class tax cuts, campaign-finance reform) to appease his liberal wing.
The big argument for centrist governance is that nothing significant can be achieved in Washington without bipartisan support, without members in both parties owning a stake. Obama, a student of the last two administrations, surely knows this. The problem is that, unlike in the nation itself (where a 44 percent plurality of voters call themselves moderates), there are relatively few moderates in the town where the legislative sausage is processed.
The interest groups on the left and right are not going away. The netroots voices will be louder than ever (with liberal commentators poised to scream betrayal if Obama tacks too much to the middle), and the Rush Limbaugh constituency will resurrect that Obama cartoon if the president doesn't tack enough. It's hard to see how Obama can navigate these treacherous waters.
On the other hand, if vivid memory serves, he has been underestimated before.
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Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
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