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Gray Matters: Bye Bye Health Care as Obama Moves to the Passionless Center

04/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When it's useful, we pundits are fond of quoting the most famous aphorism of philosopher-poet George Santayana: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." It's chiseled in stone at the Federal Trade Commission. But what if you learn the wrong lesson? Could that be one of President Obama's problems?

My favorite political scientist, whose work I studied at Harvard, was V. O. Key, who observed, among other things, that the genius of the American political system -- and often a source of frustration -- is that it generally rejects extremism and clings towards the middle, moving from right of center to left, as from Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

But that doesn't mean the center, where Obama and some of his advisors seem comfortable, is the safest and most politically rewarding place to be. Just the other day, Obama seemed to pulling further way from health insurance reforms, calling on Republicans to join in a national discussion or the subject (yeah, right). But that its Obama these days; there is no passion or purpose in the center. Key also observed in 1955, in A Theory of Critical Elections, that there were, in American history, transforming, realigning elections "in which the decisive results...reveal a sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate." With those elections, America moved and Americans were moved.

Not to get too esoteric, but such elections included that of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, which produced the two party system and the Louisiana territory; Andrew Jackson, in 1828, which built the Democratic Party, established the national bank and gave voice to the new frontier; Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who founded the Republican Party and grappled with civil conflict and the end of slavery; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, the "archetypical realigning election," which established the Democrats as the majority party for more than a generation, breaking through years of conservative, business-oriented Republican rule and responding with unprecedented activist federal government in the New Deal, to relieve the miseries of the Great Depression.

Key had faith in the American voters. "The voters are not fools," he said. But, he wrote, "if a democracy tends toward indecision, decay and disaster, the responsibility rests [with its political leaders] not in the mass of the people." The voters place their faith in leaders and want to be led. "I must go catch up to the people," someone said, "For I am their leader."

So how come, after the American people have voted for the center left, several of our most recent presidents -- Democrats, I'm sorry to say -- forget the lessons of the most successful Democratic realigner, Franklin Roosevelt, and head for the hills on the right? Or, like the current U.S. Senate, they seek the numbing middle.

Jimmy Carter, who ran against the Washington establishment and presided over runaway inflation, blamed the nation's problems on a crisis of confidence among the American people, called a "malaise" by his pollster. Historian Roger Wilkins observed, echoing Key: "When your leadership is demonstrably weaker than it should be, you don't point to the people and say, 'It's your problem.' If you want the people to move, you move them the way Roosevelt moved them.."You don't say, 'It's your fault.'" Carter didn't find his liberal voice until he left the presidency.

Bill Clinton, who lost the Congress in 1994, responded with "triangulation," meaning veering right, by killing welfare for women with dependent children, ending banking and financial regulation, which handsomely rewarded his Treasury Secretary, and telling us in the 1996 State of the Union, "The era of big government is over." For Wall Street and the big banks, the era of government was over.

Contrast that capitulation, with Franklin Roosevelt's State of the Union on January 3, 1936.It was a difficult time for his presidency. The New Deal was barely off the ground; unemployment hovered like a plague. Big business called him "traitor." The virulent right was in full cry, featuring Father Charles Coughlin, the racist radio priest, anti-Semite Gerald L .K. Smith, the Liberty League and, until his murder, Huey Long. Even Roosevelt's vice president, Texan John Garner, had doubts about the New Deal. The conservative Supreme Court was hostile, and 1936 was a crucial election year.

But Roosevelt, in his speech before a joint session of Congress, seemed to relish the new year's political battles. "We have witnessed the domination of government by financial and industrial groups, numerically small but politically dominant," he said. "We have earned the hatred of entrenched greed...They seek the restoration of their selfish power...The principles that they would instill into government if they succeed in seizing power -- autocracy toward labor, toward stockholders, toward consumers, toward public sentiment..."

Democrats cheered while the Republicans grimaced. Roosevelt dared his adversaries and critics to repeal the work of the first New Deal: "Shall we say to the unemployed and the aged, 'Social Security lies not within the province of the federal government; you must seek relief elsewhere.'" And he dared his big business critics who hid behind the rabble rousers, to show themselves: "Let them no longer hide their dissent in a cowardly cloak of generality. Let them define the issue. We have been specific in our affirmative action. Let them be specific in their negative attack."

There was no doubt what Roosevelt was for. That November, while the new Literary Digest poll predicted that Gov. Al Landon of Kansas would win, Roosevelt won the greatest electoral landslide since the beginning of the two party system, carrying all but eight electoral votes and every state (including Kansas) except Maine and Vermont, and installing huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress that would last for more than a decade, with one exception, the 80th Congress in 1947-8. And Democrat Harry Truman, echoing Roosevelt, won in a famous upset in 1948, giving hell to the Republicans and its "Do nothing Congress." Truman's election was, in a sense, Roosevelt's fifth. When have you hearh a modern president take on the opposition like that?

The point, of course, is that Roosevelt's New Deal could not have been passed and been so successful without his hands-on leadership and risk-taking. And in spite of opposition, he fought for his programs by carrying the fight to the stubborn, recalcitrant opposition. He did not seek to win them over; they were a perfect foil, a tight-faced minority who would turn the clock back.

Roosevelt, as the saying goes, danced with the date he brought. Rather than heading toward the center, where he got few votes, he remained loyal to those who voted for him. And they remained loyal to him. He was not loyal to the people who didn't vote for him and opposed his program. Yes, he was president of all the people, but Roosevelt believed that his ideas would benefit all Americans, including those who didn't vote for him.

During his campaign, Barack Obama called on the spirits of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as his heroes and transformational presidents. But each of them, with a combination of pragmatism and ideology, did not seek the center for comfort. They fought for their principled and sometimes unpopular stands. They led. They made clear what they stood for. Lincoln risked his presidency in 1864 to save the union and his presidency. And he built the Republican Party, which ruled for most of the years until Roosevelt.

Lyndon Johnson, who was a young congressman during the Roosevelt years, was a consummate politician and pragmatic when he had to be. But when he saved the traditional Democratic majority in the 1964 election, he did not play it safe. He went further than the more conservative John F. Kennedy, and used that majority to pass the most ambitious legislative agenda, the Great Society, since the New Deal-the Civil Rights Acts, Medicare, Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all of which are still law.

Ronald Reagan also did not move to the center after he won in 1980, but he remained loyal to his conservative, anti-communist base and its principles. He remains popular today, partly because he was not a nut, but an honest and genuine conservative who did not try to kill Social Security or Medicare, but who raised taxes when he had to and applied the military and economic pressure that helped bring down Soviet power during the presidency of another pragmatic conservative, George H.W. Bush..

Obama is as articulate as his presidential heroes. He has resurrected an activist, caring federal government. He has brought to Washington an openness, balance and a greater appreciation for public service. Furthermore his accomplishments are many and civilized, if not great. He has miles to go, but his obsession with bipartisanship is allowing his adversaries to define him. Democrats in congress need not follow him. No one fears Obama. Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson defined themselves as liberals. And they called their opposition out for what they were. When, if ever, will Obama take the offensive to save his congressional majority? Obama says he's not an ideologue; does that mean he has no ideology? What does he really believe, beyond the brainy rhetoric? We still don't know what he's for in the health care debate. He's neither right or left, said one of his top aides, "he's for what works." But what does that mean?

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith told the New York Times that "the candidate of change became the president of continuity." So puzzled Democrats, liberals, progressives and independents who brung him to the ball-have had to stand aside. They wait and hope for the change they believed in.