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Judith Ellis Headshot

The Obama Triangulation: The Right, the Left and Slick Willy

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White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told the New York Times, "As I understand it, triangulation is the idea that you demonstrate to some set of swing voters that you are politically palatable by poking the extremes of both parties in they eyes." After President Obama's press conference I wrote to a veteran pundit friend. The press conference reminded me of President Clinton's Sister Souljah moment. The statement by Pfeiffer affirms my suspicion.

In triangulation all points are stable and necessary. In this context the left and right are needed to position Obama. They are used "to demonstrate to some set of swing voters that you are politically palatable." The "you" here is Obama. This is the gut reaction analogy I made to my veteran pundit friend. As Clinton needed to prove to swing voters that he could offend the black community really badly and have them remain on his side, Obama needs to prove the same but he does so on the left and right with half the skill. He has been called "divisive." Perhaps triangulation is the genesis of that critique.

It was obvious to the black community what Clinton was doing, but what happened? He was dubbed "the first black president" until the real first black president emerged. He disrespected black people who were so loyal to him by openly making veiled racist statements when Obama ran against Hillary Clinton in the primary. President Clinton responded in shock by the response. What? The triangulation isn't working now? The offense is not taken? Blacks aren't rallying to me in spite of the offense? Behold! A native son had arrived and one with great potential.

In this context of triangulation, Obama makes both the left and right extremely offended by poking them directly in the eyes in order to secure swing voters. Where else would the left go? And the right is never counted upon for votes. This is how Obama seems to have governed. But there is a problem. He does not seem to be as smooth as "Slick Willy" and perhaps not as dishonest either. There had often been contradictions on his face. But they seem to be fading with each year as president.

The last press conference seemed to reveal Obama's contradictions in the uncharacteristic anger he showed toward the left. Had he not given them what they wanted? Had he not played his triangulation role well enough? It was a moment of self-indulgence. The anger seemed to fit perfectly into his sense of failure of not being like "Slick Willy." So, what happens? The real "Slick Willy" appears once again in the White House press room.

The Obama triangulation may not work because of the lack of deftness in delivery. But perhaps all that is needed is time.

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