Will Obama Govern From The Center?

It’s admittedly only a parlor game, but prognosticating about what a new president is likely to do is nonetheless part of the American tradition. In the case of Barack Obama the game is even more fascinating.

The man is for all intents and purposes a cipher. His meager legislative record gives little clue as to his core beliefs. We know he has sided with the very liberal wing of the Democratic Party yet beyond that there is not much to go on. No record of deep espousal of particular causes and really no speeches that go into any sort of policy detail. His campaign was brilliant but significantly lacking in detail partly due to the ineptitude of the McCain campaign and its inability to box him in and force concrete statements.

So far, most of the pundits have concluded that the man is going to be much more of a centrist than had commonly been assumed. The basis for this conclusion seems to rest on what appears to be a number of appointments to cabinet positions that are decidedly moderate. Charles Krauthammer in a Friday editorial in the Washington Post  disagrees with the notion that Obama will govern from the center.

Obama the centrist? I’m not so sure. Take the foreign policy team: Hillary Clinton, James Jones and Bush holdover Robert Gates. As centrist as you can get. But the choice was far less ideological than practical. Obama has no intention of being a foreign policy president. Unlike, say, Nixon or Reagan, he does not have aspirations abroad. He simply wants quiet on his eastern and western fronts so that he can proceed with what he really cares about — his domestic agenda.

A functioning financial system is a necessary condition for a successful Obama presidency. As in foreign policy, Obama wants experts and veterans to manage and pacify universes in which he has little experience and less personal commitment. Their job is to keep credit flowing and the world at bay so that Obama can address his real ambition: to effect a domestic transformation as grand and ambitious as Franklin Roosevelt’s.

Similarly his senior economic team, the brilliant trio of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Paul Volcker: centrist, experienced and mainstream. But their principal task is to stabilize the financial system, a highly pragmatic task in which Obama has no particular ideological stake.

I like Krauthammer’s logic but wonder if events will indeed afford Obama the luxury that Krauthammer contends he seeks. History has a way of forcing presidents and lesser men to focus on things they might prefer to leave to others.

Having established his case that Obama has staffed his administration in a manner that will allow him to focus on domestic policy, Krauthammer then offers his explanation of how the current set of circumstancesw afford Obama the perfect opportunity to “transform” the society.

The deepening recession creates the opportunity for federal intervention and government experimentation on a scale unseen since the New Deal. A Republican administration has already done the ideological groundwork with its unprecedented intervention, culminating in the forced partial nationalization of nine of the largest banks, the kind of stuff that happens in Peronist Argentina with a gun on the table. Additionally, Henry Paulson’s invention of the number $700 billion forever altered our perception of imaginable government expenditure. Twenty billion more for Citigroup? Lunch money.

Moreover, no one in Congress even pretends that spending should be pay as you go (i.e., new expenditures balanced by higher taxes or lower spending), as the Democrats disingenuously promised when they took over Congress last year. Even some conservative economists are urging stimulus (although structured far differently from Democratic proposals). And public opinion, demanding action, will buy any stimulus package of any size. The result: undreamed-of amounts of money at Obama’s disposal.

To meet the opportunity, Obama has the political power that comes from a smashing electoral victory. It not only gave him a personal mandate. It increased Democratic majorities in both houses, thereby demonstrating coattails and giving him clout. And by running on nothing much more than change and (often contradictory) hopes, he has given himself enormous freedom of action.

Obama was quite serious when he said he was going to change the world. And now he has a national crisis, a personal mandate, a pliant Congress, a desperate public — and, at his disposal, the greatest pot of money in galactic history. (I include here the extrasolar planets.)

It begins with a near $1 trillion stimulus package. This is where Obama will show himself ideologically. It is his one great opportunity to plant the seeds for everything he cares about: a new green economy, universal health care, a labor resurgence, government as benevolent private-sector “partner.” The first hint came yesterday, when Obama claimed, “If we want to overcome our economic challenges, we must also finally address our health care challenge” — the perfect non sequitur that gives carte blanche to whatever health-care reform and spending the Obama team dreams up. It is the community organizer’s ultimate dream.

 You will get no argument from me so far as this line of reasoning goes. The Republicans may fight the good fight but they will have little in the way of public sentiment on their side. Debate and compromise will probably be in short supply as the perceived needs for action will trump anything that smacks of delay or a lack of bipartisanship. Hold on tight. It’s going to be a wild ride and you may not recognize the place we end up.

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