01/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Will Obama Enrage The Left?

I'm going to make a prediction here (one I have mentioned in passing before): Barack Obama is going to do something to absolutely enrage leftists, progressives, and the few remaining Americans who actually call themselves liberals; and, furthermore, he's going to do it within his first 100 days in office. The only thing I won't predict is what that "something" is going to be.

I say this for numerous reasons. Even before Obama started announcing his cabinet picks, he showed over and over again that he was more of a centrist kind of guy than anyone would give him credit for. The right wing, of course, was going apoplectic over Obama (Socialist! Radical! Ultra-liberal!) while at the same time conveniently ignoring George Bush handing out free money to Wall Street, or (for that matter) Sarah Palin running her state's government on a strict "redistribution of wealth" philosophy. But it should also be noted that the left wing was building their own caricature of Obama, one that looked strikingly like the one the right wing was building -- "Obama, the Mighty Progressive." The left refused to take Obama at his word when he spoke of compromise, post-partisan politics, or reaching across the aisle. Leftists everywhere consoled themselves by thinking, "He's just saying that to get elected, once he gets in there, he'll pass everything on our agenda and we'll be so strong in Congress that it'll actually happen."

I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but Obama is guaranteed to disappoint. The right wing won't be terribly disappointed, of course, since they'll have plenty to complain about for the next four-to-eight years. The only disappointing thing to them will be that Obama will not turn out to be the boogeyman they created in an effort to scare the heck out of voters. This means Obama won't be as effective a Republican fundraising tool, since he won't be doing all those things that terrify Republican donors.

The left wing, however, is going to get disappointed with a short sharp shock, soon after Obama enters office. Because newly-inaugurated President Obama is going to pick one issue and swiftly smack the left in the face, by refusing to do what they want him to do. This will be a calculated move, and will likely pay off enormous political dividends for Obama over the life of his presidency.

Call it his "Sister Souljah moment," if you will. By appearing to "stand up" to the left wing, Obama will be seen as charting his own course as a strong and independent leader, beholden to no special interest group of radical progressives. That's how the news media will portray it, at any rate. His approval ratings will likely rise after he does so, since it will serve to calm fears from suburban Republicans and Independents that Obama is going to make too many radical changes too fast.

But it's going to absolutely enrage the left. You can bet the farm on that one. Taking the long view, however, I believe it will actually help Obama get more progressive laws passed. It's kind of doublethink, but bear with me. If Obama starts off his presidency showing strength and independence from the left, it will mean a lot more people out there are going to give him the benefit of the doubt over time. They didn't believe the cries of "Socialist!" in the election, and they're going to get more comfortable with Obama as a result. It will then be up to Congress to challenge him by passing laws even more sweeping than Obama asked for. Which Obama will (perhaps with a show of reluctance) then sign. Meaning more progressive legislation actually gets passed in the end. If Obama removes his "lightning rod" target for the right wing early on, over the long run he'll be able to get better laws passed, with more support from the public than they would normally have.

I could be monstrously wrong about all of this, to be sure. But from watching his campaign, and listening to what he actually said, the portrait of Obama I am left with is one of cautiousness and pragmatism, and not of some sort of progressive icon. Exhibit A in my thinking is the FISA bill he voted for. Exhibit B would have to be the numerous times he reluctantly moved left, without actually fully supporting a populist or liberal agenda. Exhibit C is his intervention with how the Senate treated Joe Lieberman. And that's without even examining his cabinet choices. All of these things point to a very centrist course for an Obama administration, with lots of compromises with political foes.

A good test case will be how President Obama handles the torture question. Will he convene a commission to investigate? Will he offer blanket immunity (or even -- gasp! -- pardons) to get honest answers about what went on? Or will he sweep the whole thing under the rug and "look to the future and not the past," while urging everyone to move on? The torture question is merely the tip of the iceberg (the best bad example, as it were) in how Obama is going to handle Bush's legacy. What Bush policies is Obama going to immediately rectify? What Bush actions will he reverse, even if it takes months? We've never really gotten clear and consistent answers as to how Obama is going to handle the Bush mess, which leaves me wondering what he will actually do when he gets the chance.

But it could be almost any issue, it doesn't just have to be how to deal with Bush's legacy. Barack Obama will likely not make the mistake Bill Clinton did when he entered office with the "gays in the military" issue. Clinton wanted to do what was right, the military balked, and we wound up with "Don't ask, don't tell," which has been a complete disaster. But the lesson here is that Clinton started off by picking a fight with his opponents -- with a bold move that he knew they would hate.

I think Obama is going to do the opposite. I think he's going to come out with some bold move that he knows the left is absolutely going to abhor. [Feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments as to what exactly this is going to turn out to be, or even if you think I'm barking up the wrong tree entirely.] Because I simply cannot get rid of the feeling that, sometime next January or February, President Obama is going to make a point of picking a fight with some of his own most fervent supporters. They will then denounce him for his outrageous action, and go ballistic in an entirely predictable fashion. And (this is the part I'm least sure about, I have to admit) Obama will emerge from the fray even stronger politically than ever, with more "political capital" to spend on getting the rest of his agenda done. In other words, although it will require more of a "big picture" or "long view of history" type of viewpoint, I don't think it'll be as bad as it will first seem when it happens.


[UPDATE: When I posted this, I wasn't aware of this story at the top of Huffington Post. It seems like we may not even make it to the first 100 days!]


Chris Weigant blogs at: