Saturday, November 29, 2008

Barack Obama, the centrist?

Photo by Reuters/Jim Young

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.

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