The political headline this week is that President Obama appears to be attempting to move toward the center, or what he believes is the center. We saw the big pivot in two major speeches, one on the economy and the other, in Oslo, on peace.
If it is real—if the pivot signals a true, partial or coming shift, if it is not limited to rhetorical flurries—it is welcome news in terms of public policy. It also tells us some things. It tells us White House internal polling is probably worse than the public polls telling us the president has been losing support among independents. It tells us the mounting criticism from Republicans, conservatives and others has had a real effect. It tells us White House officials have concluded they were out on a cliff. It tells us they are calculating that after a first year of governing from the left, and winning whatever they win on health care, they believe they can persuasively shift to the center, that it will work.
Which is the great political question: Will it work? With congressional elections a year away, will it help make Democrats safe and keep Congress?
The disadvantage of a pivot is that it will further agitate the president’s base, which feels he’s already been too moderate. (This actually carries some benefits: When the left rails at Mr. Obama, he looks more moderate.) The upside is clear. In a time of extended crisis, voters are inclined to reject the radical. And a shift will represent a challenge to the president’s competitors. It is one thing to meet a president’s policies with effective wholesale denunciations when they are wholesale liberal. It’s harder when those policies are more of a mix; it’s harder to rally and rouse, harder to make criticism stick. Bill Clinton knew this. Maybe the White House is learning it, and the same way he learned it: after a bruising.
The economic speech took place Tuesday at the Brookings Institute, the generally left-leaning think tank in Washington. The president put unusual emphasis on—and showed unusual sympathy for—Americans in business, specifically small businesses. “Over the past 15 years, small businesses have created roughly 65% of all new jobs in America,” he said. “These are companies formed around kitchen tables in family meetings, formed when an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream, formed when a worker decides it’s time she became her own boss.” This is how Republicans, moderates and centrists think, and talk.
The president claimed success in reducing taxes—“This fall, I signed into law more than $30 billion in tax cuts for struggling businesses”—and announced a new cut: “We’re proposing a complete elimination of capital gains taxes on small business investment along with an extension of write-offs to encourage small businesses to expand in the coming year.” He called it “worthwhile” to create a new “tax incentive to encourage small businesses to add and keep employees.”
All this was striking, and seemed an implicit concession that tax levels affect economic activity. It was as if he were waving his arms and saying, “Hey taxpayer, I’m not your enemy!” The only reason a president would find it necessary to deliver such a message is if he just found out taxpayers do think he’s the enemy. The emphasis on what it takes to start and build a business, seemed if nothing else, a bowing to reality. And if you’re going to bow to something, it might as well be reality.
Thursday, at his Nobel laureate speech in Oslo, the president used an audience of European leftists to place himself smack-dab in the American center. He said, essentially: War is bad but sometimes justified, America is good, and I am an American. He spoke of Afghanistan as “a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 43 other countries—including Norway—in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.” Adroit, that “including Norway.” He said he had “an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict” and suggested America’s efforts in Afghanistan fit the criterion of the concept of a “just war.” It continues to be of great value that a modern, left-leaning American president speaks in this way to the world. “The world” didn’t seem to enjoy it, and burst into applause a resounding once.
He quoted Martin Luther King, when he received the Peace Prize: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones.” But Mr. Obama added that “as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation,” he could not be guided only by Dr. King’s example. “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” Evil exists: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”
He acknowledged Europe’s “ambivalence” about military action, and “a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.” But the world should remember what America did during and after World War II. “It is hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers,” he said—and he pointedly noted America’s creation of the Marshall Plan and contribution to the United Nations, “a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud. . . . Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”
All of this, as William Safire used to say, was good stuff. There were wiggy moments—his references to John Paul II in Poland and Richard Nixon in China were historically unknowing to the point of being utterly inapt—but they did no particular harm.
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There continues to be a particular challenge for the president, and it is an affection gap. It is not hard to respect this president, not hard to want to listen to his views and weigh his arguments. It is a challenge, however, to feel warmly toward him. This matters politically because Americans like to feel affection for their presidents, and are more likely to forgive them for policy differences when they do. There’s the stony, cool temperament, and also something new. The White House lately seems very fancy. When you think of them now, it’s all tuxedoes, gowns and Hollywood. There’s a certain a metallic glamour. But metal is cold.
White House image masters will think the answer is to show pictures of the president smiling at children and walking newly plowed fields. Actually this is part of the mystery of politics—what to do with the clay of your candidate, how to make your guy likable.
I remember when everyone was turning against Bill Clinton after the financial scandals and the smallness of his first term. I thought for a while that Bob Dole would beat him. What I didn’t take into account was a small thing that wasn’t small. When people slammed Clinton in interviews they were often smiling as they spoke. “The rogue.” “Ol’ Bubba.” Those smiles said something. They liked him. When they like you, they forgive you a lot. Mr. Obama needs to make them smile. He doesn’t. He leaves them cool as he is.