The Centrist President

by Benjamin Domenech on 11:21 am March 16, 2009

President Barack Obama came to office magnanimous in victory, calling for the end of the divisive partisanship of the Bush years and a new era of reaching across party lines. The message of his early remarks and his cabinet selections: the adults are back in charge. But after less than two months in office, it increasingly looks as if this was just lip service.

Obama’s Cabinet choices – whether the failed ones of Daschle, Freeman, Richardson, Solis and Killefer or the successfully nominated ones like Geithner, Duncan, Panetta, Kirk, and Holder – have massive question marks on matters of basic competence. His State Department has already gained a reputation for pettiness, rudeness and incivility. His White House has already become an engine of Rahm Emanuel-approved partisan political attacks, fueling targeted media campaigns against Rush Limbaugh, Jim Cramer, Rick Santelli and others. Between Emanuel’s call to “Never waste a good crisis” (something more crass than anything Karl Rove ever uttered) and the launching of a WH/DNC-run campaign using Obama’s 13 million campaign emails to mobilize in support of a gargantuan old-Washington pork-stuffed budget, the new boss seems a good deal like the old boss.

The saddest part of the likelihood that President Obama’s call for a ceasefire was just another example of typical political lip service (if you recall, President Bush promised the same thing in 2000) is that in several key policy areas, his administration has the potential to be more centrist and propose more bipartisan solutions than any in the modern era. As liberal as his legislative solutions to the current economic crisis have been, if the President holds to his promises on other policy fronts, there are several areas where he could become a paradigm-busting figure who ignores unrepresentative opinion on both sides to offer centrist solutions to the American people.

On Security: While then-Sen. Obama made a wide range of promises on rolling back the Bush administration’s policies on the war on terror, the actual effect of these policies has been less than previously advertised. It’s true that the new Administration intends to close the Guantánamo Bay facility within a year, but in refining the way they treat the prisoners there, their changes have been more about style than substance (perhaps one of the reasons these decisions keep being announced on Friday afternoons). They’ve already agreed with the previous administration in large part on the dicey matter of rendition, and they’ve argued that “aliens held at Gitmo do not have due process rights.”

Take last week’s shift on enemy combatant policy as an example: it attracted praise from the right and anger from the left, most of whom saw it as only a shift in terms, not a shift in actual policy. If there’s one thing President Obama gets, it’s branding – and if all he wants to do is call terrorists and interrogation something different to please his constituents, it’s certainly a much better policy result than many national security voters expected at the end of the campaign. Read this roundup of quotes for a good cross-section:

“I’m pleased the Obama administration decided essentially to affirm the Bush administration’s definition of who can be detained. I agree that the law supports our ability to detain individuals who are members of a terrorist organization in a time of war. I have just returned from a trip to Guantánamo Bay. And after viewing the facility and meeting with the detention guards, I believe we should keep the facility open. This is a practical, fiscally responsible and safe way to detain known-terrorists.”

• Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee

“It appears on first reading that whatever they call those they claim the right to detain, they have adopted almost the same standard the Bush administration used to detain people without charge — with one change, the addition of the word `substantially’ before the word ‘supported.’ This is really a case of old wine in new bottles.”

• Center for Constitutional Rights

It’s this sort of activity that has prompted Obama supporters like Glenn Greenwald to criticize the Administration, claiming that it “makes only the most cosmetic and inconsequential changes — designed to generate headlines misleadingly depicting a significant reversal (“Obama drops ‘enemy combatant’ label”) — while, in fact, retaining the crux of Bush’s extremist detention theory.”

Despite the criticism from the online left, President Obama isn’t agreeing with President Bush on every front when it comes to prosecuting the war on terror. But despite arguments like those from former Vice President Cheney this weekend, neither has Obama caved to the far left’s demands. Thus far, he’s adopting a much more centrist approach to the issue of National Security than many anticipated. This is a positive sign in many respects, as it’s a signal that in this critical area of policy, Obama does put security first, not political gamesmanship.

On Education: Yes, despite the best efforts of supporters of school choice, the Senate killed the DC vouchers plan at the behest of the Obama administration. This is a sad situation, where national politics is negatively effecting the lives of nearly 2,000 young students who only wish to escape the disastrous Washington D.C. school system. But in many larger policy areas, Obama has shown himself willing to take on the teachers unions on a matter of policy significance, as illustrated by his remarks last week on merit pay.

This is an area where President Obama could easily just give lip service to the idea of reform. But if that’s the case, he’s been giving lip service to it going back several years. The teachers unions hate this idea for a number of reasons, but it’s an example of a common sense centrist policy solution that a Democrat President could get pushed through Capitol Hill where a Republican could not. The Department of Education has reaped an astounding financial windfall thanks to the stimulus package, and if the stick that goes with that carrot is a triune attack of merit pay, lifting the caps on charter schools, and adopting a robust testing system on par with Massachusetts, this could be an area where Obama is uniquely positioned to achieve significant centrist reform.

On Afghanistan: The anti-war left started repeating the meme of Afghanistan as “Obama’s Vietnam” before the President had even taken office, as if they suddenly noticed what he had been saying on the campaign trail for over a year: that he supported a surge of troops on the ground in the war against the Taliban. Peter Brown rightly notes: “The Obama folks used his Afghanistan pledge to argue to moderate swing voters that Mr. Obama wasn’t just another liberal Democrat unwilling to use American military muscle when needed, a label that had hurt party presidential candidates in recent decades.”

According to polling from Quinnipiac, this is a classic “right and center vs. left” political conflict: Americans support Obama’s decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan by a 62-31% margin. The UN’s Secretary General approves as well, and though many questions remain as to the new Administration’s proposed strategy when it comes to aid and diplomacy, there’s no question that Obama is bucking the opinions of many of his supporters in engaging in this arena.

The mission as described to NPR by SecDef Robert Gates is straightforward and more limited in scope than what the prior administration hoped for:

“I would say that, at a minimum, the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against a democratically elected government in Afghanistan and thus turning Afghanistan, potentially, again, into a haven for al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

Obama seems dedicated to operating in the universe of “achievable goals” for Afghanistan. But despite the pressures of domestic policy, he doesn’t seem about to cave to pressure from the left to abandon this conflict early, or ignore the advice of Gen. Petraeus and others on counterinsurgency tactics. Again, this is an area where Obama’s centrist impulses and his penchant for ignoring the complaints of the far left where they don’t suit his purposes could reap significant strategic rewards for the country.

In Washington, the pragmatic approach to matters of policy understands that we live and operate in the desert of the real. President Obama has already made several policy steps that are extraordinarily leftist. Even if one believes it to be a solution to an economic downturn, pork barrel spending is legitimately out of control. The rollback of the Mexico City policy and the elimination of the conscience rule were steps that essentially ended Obama’s ability to reach out to social justice-minded evangelicals. On the economic front, some of the new Administration’s recommendations were so objectionable that his own party rejected them (the call to raise taxes on charitable giving is a good example).

Yet what voters in the center can still reasonably hope for, in viewing the next four years, is possible gains in a handful of key policy arenas where Obama is positioned to achieve positive change on matters where a leader approaching from the right would be stymied. In these critical areas, let’s hope that his actions continue to match his words.

Previous post:

Next post: