Why Obama Isn't Governing From The Center

Why Obama Isn't Governing From The Center

By Sean Trende - July 24, 2009

Clive Crook is confused. He doesn’t understand why Team Obama is tacking so far to the left, and doing so little outreach to the center:

No doubt, but surely even from within the cocoon you can see what a losing approach this is. Why did Obama win in the first place, for heaven's sake? Because he campaigned as a centrist. Admittedly, what he really believed was often in doubt, and some of the policy specifics made one wonder. But look at health care. He positioned himself to the right--toward the cautious center--of Hillary Clinton. And it worked pretty well, didn't it?
. . .
Obama could fix this problem so easily. I say that because I don't think he has strayed as far left as Brooks does. It's as much about messaging as policy. But he has to start disappointing the party's liberals. He has to pick a fight or two, and takes sides with the centrists. In choosing the party's liberals over the party's moderates, he is repudiating one of the most brilliant campaigns ever seen. I simply don't understand it.

Likewise, Obama supporter David Brooks decries the Democrats’ liberal suicide march.

In short, where’s Sister Souljah?

Allow me to posit two, non-mutually exclusive explanations as to Sister Souljah’s absence.

The first is that Obama isn't governing as a centrist because he isn't a centrist.  If you accept this as true, the Obama Administration makes perfect sense.  If you don't, then I admit it can be confusing.

It was amazing that Obama was able to maintain his stature as a Rohrschach candidate throughout the campaign. Liberals, moderates, and even some conservatives were able to see whatever they wanted to see in him, and were convinced that everyone else was going to be disappointed once he started governing.

But remember the National Journal rating showing him as the most liberal Senator in 2007, the Poole-Rosenthal OC rating showing him the 14th most liberal Senator in the 110th Congress, the study placing him as a very liberal state Senator in the Illinois state senate? Perhaps all of these actually meant something after all. Obama was able to bob and weave as a candidate, and deride labeling as “old politics.” But as President you ultimately have to plant your flag somewhere, and eventually you will compile a lengthy enough record that labels begin to stick.

If one accepts the theory that, for example, Obama never really did abandon his earlier stated preference for a single payer health care plan, and his goal is trying to make such a plan inevitable, then a lot of what is going on in the health care fight makes sense. It would cast Obama’s campaign as the liberal equivalent of Bush’s 2000 campaign: “liberal pragmatism” is the Bizzaro “compassionate conservatism.” But when push comes to shove, the bare underlying philosophy will always win out over the soothing, focus-group-tested adjective. Sure Obama didn't nationalize the banks, but crediting him as a pragmatist for that is a bit like calling Bush a foreign policy pragmatist for not invading Iran during his second term.

Then we look to 2010. The average midterm loss for a President’s party since World War II has been 10.5% of its seats. But the economy isn’t looking too hale right now; the average loss for a President’s party when real disposable income rises by less than 2% is 13%. The average loss for a President’s party when the President’s approval is at or below 50% is 16%. And if you look at real disposable income increases of less than 2% and a Presidential approval of less than 50% -- at the very least a possible scenario for 2010 – you end up with a murderer’s row of midterm elections: 1946, 1974, 1982, 1994, 2006.

The four scenarios described above would translate to losses of 27, 33, 41, and 49 seats, respectively for the Democrats. The latter two would hand control of the House to Republicans, while the former would deprive the Democrats of working control of the House. And remember, these are just averages. Some results in each category are lower, but some are higher.

In other words, Obama realizes that the odds are not likely going to improve for the implementation of an aggressively liberal agenda. Right now, he is in the midst of a liberal moment, where he has governing majorities in each House. He wants to get a health care bill through that is the closest to his philosophy, and he knows that future Congresses are unlikely to have similarly hearty Democratic majorities.

So he’s “going for it,” knowing that if he can ram a bill through – and with a 80-seat majority in the House I think he ultimately will be able to – it will probably never be repealed, even if Republicans surge back in 2010. If he doesn’t do it now, he will likely be relegated to pursuing an incrementalist strategy, similar to what the Democrats have been pursuing since 1994. If you accept that Obama truly is a solid liberal at heart, not a centrist, and that he’s ultimately at least as concerned about getting this agenda through as he is getting re-elected, then his present approach makes sense.

The other possibility – and like I said, these aren’t mutually exclusive -- is that Obama is just a bad executive. This doesn’t mean he’s a bad President. Being a good President in part involves giving good speeches and serving as the head of state. Obama excels at this aspect of the job.

But being President also means that you run the executive branch, set the agenda, and try to drive through legislation. For all his many, many faults, President Bush performed well here. There is little doubt that he set the legislative agenda, including the contents of the bills. But with Obama, there’s speculation that when it comes to the nitty gritty of running the executive branch, he has tuned out. Hence we see the criticism that he has delegated too much of the bill writing process to Congress, and that he has provided insufficient guidance to Congress beyond “I’m not taking anything off the table.” If Obama really is uninterested in the legislative process – or worse, is lacking in the skills to manage that process – it leaves the creation of legislation in the hands of some very liberal committee chairs. The tone of the agenda therefore lurches leftward.

Conservatives criticized Obama throughout the campaign for never having actually run anything. It may well be that like the right’s criticisms of Clinton’s character, or like the left’s criticism of Bush for being intellectually uncurious, there’s something to this.  Either way, we have two pretty simple explanations for why Obama's agenda is trending leftward.  And as a rule of thumb, one ought to prefer the simple explanations.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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