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The Great Deflector

The protests over President Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame highlight one of our commander-in-chiefs more fascinating (not to mention politically useful) qualities. 

The uproar may have been sparked by the pro-choice POTUS's scheduled appearance, but it has become more centrally a squabble between the more liberal and more conservative factions of the church or, split another way, the church fathers and the laity. Catholic conservatives are furious that their less dogmatic brethren at the university have given such a prominent platform to an ideologically unsimpatico president. 

Today's NYT piece wonders if Obama is going to get sucked into the abortion maelstrom. I doubt it. This president has an uncanny ability to spark internal divisions among various groups yet remain somehow separate from the madness himself.

Witness the ongoing Republican self-savagery. Obviously the GOP has countless problems, but it's genuinely startling the degree to which party members are spending their time firing at one another rather than uniting against the President. Obama, meanwhile, manages now and again to peel off a Republican to stand with him on an issue. (Think: Charlie Crist and the stimulus hug.) This only makes the contrast between the statesmanlike Obama and his disoriented Republican opposition all the more vivid.

Nowhere near as dramatically, there's growing anxiety among some Democrats concerning various Obama policies, especially in the realm of national security. But even those expressing dissatisfaction, like House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, say they'll cut the president some slack for another year or so.

Some of the leeway (at least among political types) has to do with Obama's intimidating popularity. But it more broadly has to do with his unflappability and soothing manner. I was a fan of both Clintons, but, God love 'em, there was just something about Billary that raised the political temperature and courted animosity. Obama seems to have the opposite effect: even if he doesn't succeed in calming the fire, he manages to redirect the flames away from himself. 

This is part of what made him such an appealing candidate in these politically-toxic, ulcer-inducing times. Expect it to play an even more vital role in his performance as president.

--Michelle Cottle

Be sure to also check out Damon Linker's take on the Notre Dame controversy here.