Barack Obama, The Centrist?

Barack Obama, The Centrist?


As a life-long Democrat with a moderate viewpoint, I launched a new centrist blog on Election Night 2008 – The Purple Center – to contribute to what I hope will be a renewal of moderation and good sense in American politics.  I am delighted that Justin Gardner invited me to contribute to Donklephant and look forward to participating in this site’s smart, responsible dialogue. 

As President-elect Obama continues to assemble teams of top officials dominated by moderate Democrats, experienced non-political professionals, and some Republicans, the punditocracy is alive with theories as to what his motives are: he was a moderate all along and ran opportunistically to the left of his primary rivals; his campaign stands were generally centrist, but many on the left heard what they wanted to hear; it’s all a head fake, with middle-of-the-road big shots providing window dressing for what will turn out to be a “progressive” Administration at the second-tier levels; or Obama is using the pervasive sense of crisis to push through “radical” change.

Of course, it should not be necessary to understand Obama’s motives; only his actions and their results. We should assess what he does at face value. While he’s not even taken office yet, he appears to be set on a course to build consensus behind centrist policies in both domestic and international affairs.

Still, it’s irresistable to analyze the politics behind the policies. I think Obama grasps that the ideological polarization, partisan bitterness, and emphasis on “energizing the base” in recent Presidential elections has obscured the fact that national elections are won in the center. While many Democrats hailed the 2008 results as a harbinger of some sort of major political realignment that would give their party national dominance for a generation, Obama is smart enough to know that his 53-47% victory was not particularly large by historic standards. Given his roughly 9 million-vote margin, a switch of as few as 4.5 million votes out of nearly 130 million cast would have given the victory to John McCain (a distinct possibility if not for the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy).

All politicians and especially Presidents want to be releected. More than that, they want to succeed, be popular, make their mark in history, and to the extent they can, boost their parties. Because of the dangerous multiple crises he faces as he takes over, more than most, Obama must be acutely sensitive to avoiding the pitfalls that come with assuming too much about his victory and the often brief shelf-life of public support. He’s probably mindful of the two most recent examples of a President making the mistake of interpreting a relatively close election as a “mandate.”

George W. Bush prevailed in 2004 by a mere 3 million votes. Rather than taking into account the opposition of 59 million Americans, without skipping a beat, Bush doubled down on his losing Iraq strategy and made his plan to partially privatize Social Security an early centerpiece of his second term. The result was the beginning of a downward spiral of his public support.

In 1992, Bill Clinton prevailed by 5 million votes, no landslide and all the shakier due to the fact that he won only a 43% plurality. Yet, Clinton jumped into his first term emphasizing a number of issues that were then polarizing, helped provoke the Republican onslaught in the 1994 mid-term elections, and very nearly set himself up for defeat in 1996.

Far from having achieved an historic shift to the Democratic Party, Obama could find himself a year from now with plunging approval ratings and a turn back to the GOP in the 2010 Congressional elections. He needs to find consensus on the big issues, create policies and programs around that consensus, and build enduring political support for himself and his party through recognition of concrete achievements.

Successful Presidents (e.g., FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan) have done just that. They’ve taken care early in their administrations to solidify the support of those who voted for them without special enthusiasm and to win over the potential swing voters who backed their opponents. Obama has set out to accomplish that, too.

Rather than shun Hillary Clinton and those who supported her, he’s firming up the support of more moderate Democrats by bringing her into his Administration. Perhaps even more significantly, by naming a first-class, professional economic team and (presumably) a consensus group of experienced national security experts without regard to party, including Secretary Gates and General Jones, he is reaching out to the more moderate McCain supporters and everyone who entertained doubts about Obama’s experience or political bent.

Obama knows that he must show substantial progress on the economy and avoid any significant national security embarassments by the end of 2009 or risk an electoral slap in 2010 and a potential for defeat in 2012. If he does, he’ll have approval ratings in various polls of up to 60% or higher. Or to look at it another way, he’ll enjoy the support of both the Democratic base and the vital center. Then the GOP would really have something to worry about for the long haul.

Cross-posted from The Purple Center

  • Alistair

    The two things that Obama has done thus far that past Democratic elected President fail to do was assymbling their cabinet with some experience people inside of Washington and adding a few Republicans. While some of his picks have made some from the left unhappy, his picks have impress a lot of moderates and some conservatives to the point that crittics like Carl Rove has praise him on some of his cabinet picks. If he does well in his he could give birth to the rise of Blue Dog Democrats in the south and could making it difficult for Republicans to win in 2010 and 2012.

  • Ted

    On Dec 5 the Supreme Court will either allow or disallow the usurpation of both the Constitution and the Government of the United States — easily the most pivotal decision since our nation’s founding — and the silence of the news media is deafening (if not downright scary).

  • Alistair

    Ted Says:

    Forget it, they won’t her the case if you read MSNBC!

  • Jeremy from Oregon

    Great topic johnburke. I think everyone is trying to divine exactly “what” it is Obama stands for. Left, Center and Right are all guessing and that’s perfectly understandable considering Obama’s slogan of “Change” and free wheeling smiles, neither of which tell us anything of substance. And like you said, everyone is going to “see” what they want to see. We will have to wait and see. That’s all we can do.

    Regarding you statement: “While many Democrats hailed the 2008 results as a harbinger of some sort of major political realignment that would give their party national dominance for a generation, Obama is smart enough to know that his 53-47% victory was not particularly large by historic standards”

    I don’t believe the majority of the democratic party thinks in these terms. When the Republicans took control of the Presidency and Congress it was a different story. They ran with it. An attempt to put “partisan bitterness” behind the unification of the nation didn’t even occur to the Republicans. Their takeover was treated as a ‘Spoils goes to the victors’ mentality while giving the appearance of bipartisan reconciliation.

    After all, “saving” Social Security by privatizing it is exactly reaching across the aisle if you catch my drift.

    I think Obama understands this. I believe he wants to preside over a functioning, active government that has a viable mandate.

    But that doesn’t mean that if a new tax bill is put forth and the rich are made to actually “pay their share” instead of getting them GREATTTT! tax-cuts from Bushy Boy that they are so used to. It doesn’t mean Obama is working against the “compassionate conservatives. It means they too need to start paying their share of the tax burden in this country, instead of funneling the wealth of the middle class straight into their war profiteering pockets.

  • Jim S

    When I was trying to decide who to vote for in the Democratic primary I went to candidate’s web sites and read through them. Based on that I’m not surprised by a single thing Obama is doing.

  • Jeremy from Oregon

    Jim S, would you happen to be talking about the obligatory “How candidate X stands on the Issues?” Heh! yeah, me too. But if you ask a man, especially a politician vying for the highest office in the land I’m sure the “How I stand on the issues page” is going to be the most populist, suck-up piece of ‘vote for me, I’m perfect on the issue’ propaganda.

    Everyone visited Obama’s internet HQ. I’m sure everyone perused the “How Barack stands on the Issues page.” I also did the same back in 2000 for G. Dubya’s site as well. You get spoon fed the part line propaganda. What you don’t get is a reliable assessment of the candidate. That is, unless, the candidate happens to be honest.

    Remember Bush’s “compassionate conservative” slogan? He was forthright on half at least. He certainly turned out to be conservative. As in, Neo-Conservative. And unless your definition of compassionate is different than mine than compassion was never employed by this president.

    We don’t know what Obama is about. To pretend so because Obama puts us at ease doesn’t mean squat. After all, George Bush with all his colloquial charm put most everyone at ease at first. But as we know, that all faded rather quickly now didn’t it.

  • mw

    “Of course, it should not be necessary to understand Obama’s motives; only his actions and their results. We should assess what he does at face value. While he’s not even taken office yet… – JB

    And there is the rub. It is absurd to make any assessment about how he will govern before he actually does anything in office. Certainly there are many on the left and moderate left that expect the much promised “Change” means something very different than hewing to the center. They will be disappointed if he is the centrist many would like to believe. If his policies take a port tack, he will disappoint the moderates and cross-over conservatives that believed the rhetoric and felt betrayed by the GOP. Which group is he going to disappoint? It is certain that he must disappoint one or the other. I like the competence in evidence in his economic cabinet and advisors, but it is only the policies that will matter. We will see.

    Welcome aboard.

  • Jimmy the Dhimmi

    He will be a centerist for essentially one reason. You can’t govern America from the left. You just can’t. You will run the country into the ground. We’ve just seen what happens when leftist social policy tries to manage the mortgage and lending industry. Socialized Health care? Please. The entire world’s pharmaceutical and medical technologies industry would collapse. Tax the rich in a recession? then you make the recession permanent.

    Obama is learning this because he is going around asking experts what he should do. His naivite and inexperience have actually become an asset. He is not an idealogue with firmly held beliefs or ideals. His leftist rhetoric during the campaign was just that. Obama knows that he doesn’t know what to do, so he assembles a cabinet based on the last Democrat who did.

    Sort of like Bush hiring all the run-offs from his dad’s administration.

  • Jon

    Obama was always a centrist. The right tried to portray him as a far left liberal because that’s what they do. In 2004 Kerry was the most liberal man in the senate, in 2007 Clinton was the most liberal member, by 2008 it was Obama.

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    Obama is playing the long game, how things turn out for the future not only his own, but the Democratic party’s and the nation, depends on how he governs in thse first four years, if he succeeds in his goals, then in 2012, the Dems will have no trouble running the tables, and at the moment the left doesn’t have enough dominance to go it alone, building a centrist coalition at this time is key. As i’ve said repeatedly, the realignment is not complete, what Obama does in the next four years will be key, if he succeeds, then the Dems will enjoy decades as the majority party. FDR in 1932 wasn’t elected because of his plans, in fact his plans uring the campaign were rather vague, he was elected because he was no Hoover, because he represented a change from the do nothing policies of the GOP with regards to the Depression. Obama harnessed that sentiment against McCain and the GOP, running as something new, a change from the policies of the GOP, as the not Bush. FDR succeeded because he made the moves that showed the people that he was looking out for their needs, and even though the Depression didn’t end by 1936, things were better than they were in 1932.

  • mw

    Ok, so Avinash will be the among the group that is disappointed.

    I’m glad we got that settled.

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    Actually, quite the opposite mw, I will be surprosed if he is anything but centrist/slightly left of center for the first 2-4 years he is in office. In fact I would advise him to remain in the center as much as possible over the first four years, however I would be surprised mw, if he remains centrist if the Dems get into amendment passing territory after four years, now i’m not saying he’ll break hard left, but expect him to tilt a bit more left in his second term if the Dems manage to expand their strength in the senates and house. If the dems hit around 70% control of both houses and there are enough progressive dems in congress well you’ll see a more leftist agenda get trotted out, but now is too early for all that, right now the Dems have to show America that they have the right plans and they can solve the problems, once they prove that, the country will happily support a liberal agenda.

  • Jeremy from Oregon

    “We’ve just seen what happens when leftist social policy tries to manage the mortgage and lending industry.” -Jimmy the Dhimmi

    LOL! What are you on? You seriously believe that “leftist social policies” led to the mortgage lending meltdown? Pleasssssse! Aren’t leftist supposed to be the regulatory demon spawn? Aren’t they “against the free market?” Oh, I see, they are anti-regulation only in markets and industries that melt down during Republican adminstrations. How convenient 😉

    Anyone remember the HUD scandals of the Reagan adminstration. Anyone remember the S&L (Savings and Loan) scandals of the Reagan administration? Anyone remember the junk-bond scandals on Wall Street during Reagan’s administration? It’s apparent that Jimmy the Dhimmi doesn’t.

    Which presidencies have been the center of government scandals during the past 20 years? I’ll give you a hint; Reagans and both president Bushes. Not Clintons and not Carters. And I dislike both Clinton and Carter btw. I’m a true lefty, not a pretender like those two.

  • mw

    I’ll agree, that if Obama governs competently and from the center, he’ll easily win re-election. And as I indicated before, I think the GOP will have a tough time doing anything more than stop the bleeding in 2010. But in 2012, the numbers in the Senate are stacked against the Dems. The GOP may or may not retake the majority, but the Dem majority will certainly shrink, not grow. Even FDR started losing seats in Congress in his second term. Most President’s lose seats in Congress in their first mid-term (GWB was a notable exception). Its the American way.

    BTW – I’m glad to see you posting here. I may be completely off-base, but based on your handle and posting times, I’m guessing you are from India. If so – condolences on the tragedy in Mumbai, and I hope you and yours were not directly impacted.

  • Avinash_Tyagi

    You keep thinking that mw, the truth is, the deck is already stacked against the GOP for 2012, its called demographics pally, and demographics are destiny. By 2012 the GOP demographics of 2008, will be less of a percentage of the electorate then they were in 2008, GOP groups are shrinking in general and becoming less electorally important, whites for example that all important GOP base, are shrinking not only as a share of the overall population, but also as a share of the electorate, and in fact young whites aren’t even on the GOP’s side, and the GOP has lost Hispanics thanks to their anti immigration stances, by comparison, Hispanics and Asians and Blacks and the young whites of 2008 and all the other major Obama demographics in 2008, will be a greater percentage of the electorate, the groups Obama attracted are growing, hispanics for example are the fastest growing “racial” group in the country, and they’ll be riding another Obama wave in 2012, probably even larger than in 2008, as he’ll be a popular president seeking reelection. If you’re going by merely who has more seats to defend then you really don’t understand the system. Its not who is defending and who isn’t, its about demographics. Demographics decide elections, who can win women, who can win blacks, who can win hispanics and the young, and the educated, and the urban/suburban dwellers. In addition in 2012, it will be the first election after the 2010 census, Dems are in a great position in many state legislations, enough to redistrict the GOP out of a lot of house seats in 2012. If Obama goes into the 2012 election cycle with as much or even more popularity then in 2008, the GOP will lose more ground, even if the Dems have more seats to defend. You’ll find that those seats are referred to as safely Democrat.

  • sloane

    Dr. Tantillo, who blogs from a branding perspective, blogged last month about the difficulty–and importance–of Obama staying true to his brand.

    “President Obama will need to continually listen to the electorate, respond to the pragmatic core and the center. Real marketing —i.e., knowing your Target Market and its needs— will preserve the promise of the candidacy from the rigors of the presidency.”–retail.aspx