As Year One of the Obama Era draws to a close, the recent Arianna Huffington/David Plouffe exchange illustrates a structural defect in the coalition Obama's seeking to build. And make no mistake: Some might call it The Year of Living Non-Dangerously, but it looks more like a deliberate strategy. It's not waffling or weakness: Barack Obama wants to become the Tony Blair of American politics.
The President seems to be deliberately moving his party rightward in order to capture the political spectrum from center/right to left, freezing out the Republican Party. It worked for Blair, but will it work here? Or will he lose his base in the process, damaging his own effectiveness? 365 days after his election, here are some pointed - and sometimes painful - questions.
In many ways disappointment with the Obama Presidency was inevitable. The President consciously (and tactically) presented himself as all things to all people, a kind of Rorschach Test on which people could project their own hopes and dreams. But a million different dreams had to collapse into a single reality when the real-life Presidency began, in much the same way that a "probability wave" of many trajectories collapses into a single photon in physics.
But it's more than that. The campaign made implicit promises of trustworthiness and new-style politics, as well as some explicit promises that have been jettisoned without explanation. He reversed himself on key health care pledges without explaining to his supporters why, and he broke his promise on ending government security much the same way. His handling of government spying abuses raises our first question: Would we have ever learned about Watergate if Barack Obama had been President?
He did not run as a center-Right Democrat, nor did he promise to restore the Clinton Administration if elected. There may be good reasons to govern from the center-Right, but he hasn't given his supporters the courtesy of an explanation. And the Clinton Administration was a deep pool of extraordinary talent, so it was wise to draw from it - in most cases. But in many critical jobs - especially Treasury - his choices have been disappointingly weak.
Then there's the whole issue of governing from the center. Here the question becomes, Would Barack Obama be a better President today if he had never read 'Team of Rivals'? Sure, it's inspiring to read how Lincoln drew his bitter opponents into his government, wisely and selflessly. But, leaving aside the challenge some historians have made to that book's thesis, is the President learning that some of his rivals may not have the same high moral standards as Lincoln's? Most politicians want to please everyone, especially those that don't like them. Let us hope that this emotional impulse is not being masked in the cloak of false pragmatism. In other words, Has the President written the wrong future biography for himself? Is he aspiring to be Lincoln when the times call for Roosevelt?
Which leads us to the next question: Is the President's Big Tent big enough to include his supporters? The President has projected an almost visceral dislike of bloggers, and his Cabinet boasts few DC outsiders like the ones that formed his initial base. Rahm Emanuel showered progressive activists with "F bombs" recently. By contrast, during his Presidency Bill Clinton spoke with warmth and empathy about the ragtag protesters at Seattle's World Trade Organization meeting. Many get the sense that Obama sees young (and not so young) activists as foolish and naive, a source of unpredictability and disorder that just makes him uncomfortable. That impression may be false, but it is an impression nevertheless.
Pace Mr. Plouffe, the base's disappointment with the President is not based on "frustration with the pace of change." It's based on their fear that the President may not really be interested in fundamental change. If that is anyone's fault, then to a large extent the blame lies with the President - and his advisors and communicators.
Some (in the Administration and elsewhere) may say, Who cares? What difference does it make if a group of granola-eating activists and bloggers is unhappy? We've got a center-right coalition to build. We're about the hard work of day-to-day governance. But Democrats would be foolish to assume that any future election will be an easy one. A dispirited base damages a campaign at its foundation, and at its heart. Perhaps the President should consider a sit-down with his critics on the Left, as well as those on the Right. If nothing else, he should use them as an excuse for passing legislation he supports anyway.
Compromise is the lifeblood of politics, as long as it's not done too quickly - or too cynically. Obama's lack of specificity on health reform and his willingness to defer to Congress could be seen as expediency, or as more Rorschach Politics. (As long as it's called "health reform" and it passes, we win. ...) Unnecessary compromise dilutes the outcome, especially when one's opponents lack good will.
We wish the President every success at Year One. We remain guardedly optimistic, despite the disappointments. We would pitch in and help ourselves, if we were welcomed. And we recognize that politics is hard, messy, and filled with compromise. But, if greatness is a combination of talent and historical need, this President has the potential for greatness. So the final question is this one:
Does the President understand that compromising with cynics can lead to a half-cynical outcome?
RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:
Website: Eskow and Associates
So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.
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