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Governing at ground zero

Obama and the search for middle ground

If we are 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 Ayres, 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 in advice in Godfather 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 magazine, David Axelrod said that 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.”

And Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, is saying much the same. In an interview that ran this weekend in The Wall Street Journal, Emanuel argued that the new president should not “go off on tangents where part of your party is demanding an ideological litmus test….I think the country is incredibly pragmatic…I don’t think the country is yearning for an ideological answer. If anything, it’s the opposite. They want real solutions to real problems. If we do an ideological test, we fail. Our challenge is to work and solve the actual problems that the country is facing, not work to satisfy any constituency or ideological wing of the party.”

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, many feel that the election was symptomatic of a leftward shift in the nation, 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 “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 back in 1991, surfaced last Thursday on the liberal Huffington Post website. It turns out that Summers, as a World Bank economist, encouraged the dumping of toxic waste in Africa – this prompting the website 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 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) in order to appease his liberal wing. And he suffered the consequences, because his leftward shift helped fuel the rise of Newt Gingrich and the ’94 conservative House takeover.

Obama and the congressional liberals can be expected to disagree on a number of policy fronts. For instance, some top Democratic lawmakers would like to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, which had long decreed (before Reagan shelved it) that federally-licensed broadcasters had to balance opinions with opposing viewpoints. The demise of the doctrine, in 1987, helped trigger the rise of conservative talk radio. Conservatives are already upset at the prospect that Democrats would try to reinstate the doctrine - although, in truth, conservatives would love to have a polarizing issue that they could use to galvanize their dispirited rank and file.

But candidate Obama told broadcasters last June that he opposed reinstatement, and it strains credulity to believe that the congressional Democrats would pick this kind of fight without Obama’s OK, especially in the first phase of the administration. There are far bigger issues on the table, many of which would ideally benefit from GOP input and support.

The fundamental 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


to the middle. (Indeed, Rush isn't even waiting for Obama to take the oath; the other day, the talkmeister warned that Obama and the Democrats "are going to take your 401k and put it in the Social Security trust fund, whatever the hell that is" - thereby uttering what may well be the first blatant Limbaugh lie of the Obama era.) So it's hard to see how Obama can navigate all these treacherous waters.

On the other hand, if vivid memory serves, he has been underestimated before.