Wednesday, January 28, 2009

With Friends Like These

Both the left and the right wings are yelping, whilst President Obama tries to govern from the center.

These are all minor perturbations, you might say, and you’d get no argument from me. But they’re also signs of real fissures and may presage real fights that Obama will have to cope with as he seeks to rescue the economy, renovate American foreign policy, remodel our health-care system, reengineer our energy policy, and reinvent our politics in the bargain. All indications so far scream that Obama is determined to govern from the center. Which means that both the right and the left will have cause for complaint. The only question is which will prove a bigger pain in Obama’s buttocks.

Quite an agenda, and he'll have to drag many of us kicking and screaming.

Certainly the opposition of the right will be louder, more relentless, and often extravagantly obnoxious. Consider Limbaugh, attempting to justify his declaration of his desire to see Obama founder, telling Sean Hannity: “We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over and grab the ankles … because his father was black.”

Borderline racism, really, but he is such a buffoon.

Limbaugh is a clown, of course, but he’s also the most prominent conservative in the country, and one whose influence may actually grow among Republicans, given the abject disarray in which the party currently finds itself. Bereft of a coherent set of ideas, possessing no obvious national leader, the right flank of the GOP appears increasingly likely to adopt a stance of reflexive obstructionism toward Obama’s agenda. The clearest indication has been the performance of Cornyn, who chairs the Republican Senatorial Committee, with regard to Clinton and Holder. In the former case, Cornyn claimed to be after greater transparency from Bill Clinton’s foundation; in the latter, he was looking for a commitment from the incoming attorney general to not prosecute Bush officials for the torture of detainees. Neither gambit was likely to have any actual effect. Instead, they were designed to make a point—and poke a stick in Obama’s eye.

Poke a stick in his eye exactly; testinng him, putting him on notice there will be fighting.

Not all the roadblocks being thrown up by the right are quite that mindless, however. Holds have also been placed on Obama’s nominees to head the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality—both likely part of a longer-term strategy to fight the climate-change legislation soon coming down the pike. Over in the House, meanwhile, Minority Leader John Boehner’s howling over Obama’s stimulus package is intended to maintain pressure for more tax cuts and less spending, a maneuver that seems to be having the desired effect.

Putting a positive spin on Obama's actions, I'd say he is coopting Boehner; others on the left, liberals, Democrats, are howling that he is caving in to the Republicans.

The left has its own set of concerns about the stimulus—indeed, the diametrically opposite ones that are animating the right. From the moment that Team Obama floated details of the plan, liberals have complained that the ratio of tax cuts to investment was seriously out of whack as a matter of sound economics; and also that, in political terms, it represented a sort of pre-capitulation to the Republicans both unnecessary and unwise. Leading the chorus of critics has been Paul Krugman, who observed the other day in his blog that the House had scaled back mass-transit spending in order to accommodate the tax cuts. “I feel a bit of post-partisan depression coming on,” Krugman sighed.

Krugman might be feeling a post-Nobel ego-inflation as well.

The liberal angst over Obama simmered throughout the transition, fired by a set of appointments, especially on economics and national security, so conspicuously centrist that it seemed to some Washington players almost designed to alienate progressives. “They didn’t throw any bones to the left,” says one prominent Democrat. “And they’re just too smart for that to have been an accident.” But the worries never came to a boil, and they may not for some time. Indeed, the left thrilled to the initial set of executive orders issued by Obama during his first two days in office...

As I see it, he has put the left on notice that he is a centrist, he is in charge, and they will have to live with it. He won.

But it’s not hard to see where Obama and the left could be on a collision course.


As a practical matter, Obama’s management of ideological extremes will play out in his dealings with Congress. And here the difference between the House and Senate will test his dexterity. In the House, with its substantial Democratic majority and the absence of the filibuster, Obama can afford—and is sure to be pressured by his party—to build coalitions from the left toward the center. But in the Senate, a unified minority has the ability to bring his legislative agenda grinding to a halt. So the need for Republican cooperation is essential, and thus the imperative will be to stitch together coalitions from the center out. The tension between the two strategies is obvious; a hell of a balancing act is required.

I have faith that he can do it, and will do it.

Judging from Obama’s early moves, most old Washington hands have concluded that the new administration is focused mainly on the Senate. “Everything they’re doing seems to me to be about getting to 60 [votes],” says one such observer. “They forgive Lieberman. They play nice with Susan Collins. They play nice with McCain; I mean, my God, they appoint Janet Napolitano to Homeland Security so that McCain won’t have a serious opponent in Arizona and have to run more to his right. It’s almost diabolical.”

I can not believe they are that dumb.

This is why the left has much more leverage with him (and much greater potential to be a thorn in his side) than does the right. Yet the sheer scope of the ambitions that Obama seems to have for his presidency require broad majorities. He appears to take this business of unifying the country seriously, and to do that will require him not just to appear to reach out rightward but to actually … you know, do it.

Overambitious? Time will tell. Yet with Lincoln and FDR as role models, he has my confidence.

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