Part 2: The Road Forward
Immediately after Barack Obama won the presidency commentators began interpreting the election and giving the new President advice. Conservatives like Charles Krauthammer (who actually started spinning the election before the votes were cast), William Kristol, and House Minority Leader, John Boehner have been employing the assertion that America is a "center-right" nation to warn the new administration against a dramatic shift to the left, while liberals like Jesse Jackson and Mark Green responded to this thread with their own assertions that Obama must move dramatically to take advantage of the progressive mandate he has just earned.
Often this advice has been taking one side or the other in the false choice between aggressive progressive leadership and cautious centrist accommodation. This is an oversimplification for several reasons. First, it is conflating two dimensions into one. The choices of aggressive vs. cautious and center vs. left are independent. Obama has the option, for example, to be both bold and centrist.
Additionally, the choice between "center" and "left" is also a false choice. At a minimum, a third possibility of splitting the difference between these two options, call it "center-left" must be viewed as a more likely path than either pure progressivism or centrism.
What would a post-ideological President do?
What is amusing in all of this is that Obama should not, and is not likely to, follow any of this advice. The campaign that worked so hard to avoid ideological labels is unlikely to embrace them as it heads into the White House. The Obama team accurately read the American electorate as neither right nor left, nor center-right, nor center-left. The vast majority of Americans is weary of ideological bickering and interested only in backing leaders who can do something about their problems.
Obama seems to understand something that many pundits and ideologues do not. Americans are increasingly anti-ideological and pragmatic. Obama gets this and said so on 60 Minutes on Sunday night.
"What I don't wanna do is get bottled up in a lot of ideology and, 'is this conservative or liberal?' My interest is finding something that works. And whether it's coming from FDR or it's coming from Ronald Reagan, if the idea is right for the times then we're gonna apply it. And things that don't work we're gonna get rid of."
It may frustrate some liberals but America did not reject George W. Bush because he was too conservative. America rejected Bush because he did not have answers to their problems. Many of the conservatives that are trying to spin this election seem to be missing the point by acting as if their biggest problem is a lack of votes, when in reality the conservatives' biggest problem is a lack of ideas.
Even though he has resigned his Senate seat and is asserting that Bush should be given the opportunity to serve out the remaining weeks of his term as America's only President, it will not be easy to stay out of the issues of the day, and once he is in the Oval office, it will be impossible. The challenge of the moment is the automobile industry bailout and while it will not be easy to satisfy the competing interests of the auto industry, labor unions, environmentalists, and our trading partners, this seems to be just what Obama has in mind.
"A bridge loan to somewhere."
After initially endorsing the concept of an auto industry bailout, and then hearing criticism from British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, among others that, at a minimum makes the proposition seem more complicated, Obama set a higher bar for working out a compromise that could lead to a sustainable American automobile industry. Again in the 60 Minutes interview, Obama said,
"My hope is that over the course of the next week, between the White House and Congress, the discussions are shaped around providing assistance but making sure that that assistance is conditioned on labor, management, suppliers, lenders, all the stakeholders coming together with a plan [that answers the question:] what does a sustainable U.S. auto industry look like? So that we are creating a bridge loan to somewhere as opposed to a bridge loan to nowhere. And that's, I think, what you haven't yet seen."
Difficult policy problems like these are not going to be made easier by false choices and ideological rigidity. This even extends to the ideology that unites his supporters. Even though the driving force in his victorious election was a rejection of George W. Bush, Obama seems willing to work with some Bush holdovers and some Bush policies, realizing that anti-Bush is an ideology in itself.
Finally we learn what "change" really means.
Obama is defining "change" not as a rejection of the Bush Administration's ideology, but as a rejection of ideology itself. This makes some of his liberal progressive supporters very anxious, but if Obama can find the centered path between the available options that represents real progress without forcing, he may earn the enduring support of all of the factions that helped him win the election.
It will be a challenge to some of Obama's progressive supporters to have the patience with their newly elected leader to let this post-ideological strategy play out. That's why Obama started immediately lowering their expectations with his very first speech as President elect.
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