Presidential candidate Barack Obama clearly understood a painful fact. As president, he would be the most scrutinized, fawned over, and hectored president since Lincoln. He had absolutely no wiggle room to stumble. The legion of Obama detractors and loathers would be watching hawk like for the stumble, real or trumped up, and they'd jump down his throat. In the Oval Office, his first year has seen him do what he did as an Illinois senator, a US senator, and a presidential candidate: He's taken cautious, compromised, nuanced positions on policy issues and, where required, made infuriating shifts (back flips to progressives and liberal Democrats) on health care reform, the death penalty, gays in the military, religious conservatism, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), abortion, the war on terrorism, a fluid plan for winding down the Iraq War, a big troop build-up in Afghanistan, and retreat from his plan for a major tax hike on the rich.
There is also the old axiom that you can tell a president by his staff and cabinet picks. This very much applies to Obama. The cast of governors, senators and ex-senators, former Clinton and Democratic Party operatives and even a few token Republican mavericks were floated for his staff and cabinet picks early on.
The list read like a who's who of the Beltway and Heartland American political establishment. The idea to load up his administration with familiar names was that they were the most experienced and seasoned administrators and political operatives. Picking them would avoid a power vacuum and quiet the criticisms repeatedly tossed at him during the campaign that he was too inexperienced to govern. He hasn't disappointed. The Beltway establishment makes up his cabinet, top posts, and most major department heads.
Obama's cautious, bipartisan approach and his Beltway establishment staff and cabinet picks are designed to blunt the standard Republican rap that Democrats, especially one they branded a liberal Democrat, and a black one to boot, inherently pander to special interests, i.e. minorities; are pro expansive government; and anti-business and military spending. Even though he has not veered from the center, his first year in office that has not stopped the furious counterinsurgency from Rush Limbaugh, GOP operatives, conservative bloggers, talk show jocks and the Fox News Network. No matter what he says or does he is simply too inviting a political target not to go after with a vengeance. The Henry Louis Gates flap was a near textbook example of that.
A year later, Obama's White House is still a historic and symbolic first. But it's a White House that has kept a firm, close to the vest and conciliatory eye on mid-American public opinion, and corporate and defense industry interests in making policy decisions and determining priorities. Obama would and could not have attained the White House if he didn't do this. This has nothing to do with race, or the obsession of him as a black president -- first or not. His deft move to the center has had everything to do with the tailored and well-formulated requirement of White House governance. Presidential candidate Obama revved up millions with his hope and change mantra. President Obama quickly replaced that with playing the Beltway game.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.
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