Obama as a Centrist. Really

The president is a pragmatist. That's why he's assailed from both sides.

When they’re not calling him a socialist, Republicans, conservative talk show hosts, Tea Party enthusiasts and other detractors love to refer to Barack Obama as the most liberal president of modern times, and undoubtedly that will be a rallying cry in the November elections. But the man in the Oval Office isn’t making it easy for critics who care about the facts. Just ask the Democratic left, which knows he’s not one of them.

Consider Obama's proposal today (opens in new tab) to open a huge swatch of coastal waters to offshore drilling, a move that has the president’s environmentalist allies in a rage. Or his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which alienated his party’s left wing. He’s also adopted many (but clearly not all) of former President Bush’s views on interrogations, trials and the long-term incarceration of terrorist suspects. And his administration’s crackdown on deportations of illegal immigrants has Hispanic supporters up in arms.

Even the health care bill (opens in new tab) -- despite the hype on both sides -- is far from a liberal makeover. Obama gave up the public option, reduced penalties, delayed key provisions and settled for less than universal coverage, all bargains that many liberals dislike. The new law includes hundreds of compromises, ranging from tax hikes to abortion that left plenty of liberals grumbling.

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The stimulus bill was half the size that Obama originally wanted, and in a futile bid to win GOP votes, he agreed to tax cuts -- more than a third of the cost -- many of which would have happened anyway. It’s one reason the stimulus hasn’t been as effective as hoped, though almost all independent economists say it was critical to turning the economy around. They include Mark Zandi (opens in new tab), chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com, who advised Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Both liberals and conservatives complain that Obama isn’t being true to his campaign promises, but New York Times columnist David Brooks argues (opens in new tab) pretty convincingly that Obama campaigned as a center left pragmatic reformer and that’s pretty much what he is. Not that he is carrying out every campaign promise, but anyone who was paying attention got what they voted for. He is not an ideologue; he is clearly willing to compromise to get things done. And he believes that though government should act to solve problems, he doesn’t like to interfere with market dynamics unless they’re not working.

Brooks also argues that Obama is still misreading the country, imagining a hunger for government activism that doesn’t exist. I’m not sure that’s fair. It may be true on health care, but not on other issues. If anything, the country wants the government to do more to create jobs and spur growth, but voters don’t realize that options are limited and that whatever the government does will come with a price voters don’t want to pay – higher federal debt.

The truth is, Obama is out of place in today’s highly partisan political arena. His policies make very few, whether on the right or left, happy enough to be enthusiastic about his presidency, Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to upset him too much, and he has the tenacity and conviction to pursue the pragmatic center-left approach he campaigned on. But it would help a lot – and certainly increase the likelihood of him settling on the best possible policies – if he had more people willing to work with him, offering ideas, compromising and helping instead of yelling.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter