Over the last week, the true nature of Obama's political project has come into much clearer view. He is out to build a new and enduring political establishment, located slightly to the left of center but including everyone except the far right. That's certainly a bracing idea, since Washington has not seen a liberal establishment since the mid-1960s.
But the liberal establishment was also resolutely tough-minded in its approach to foreign policy and national security. Not for nothing was the phrase "cold war liberalism" coined.
The disturbing aspect of Obama's effort to create his new political alignment is that building it requires him to send rather different messages to its component parts. Playing to several audiences at once can lead to awkward moments.
Last Thursday afternoon, for example, the White House invited in journalists, mostly opinion writers, to sell them on the substance of the president's big speech on Guantanamo and the treatment of detainees.
The idea, as far as I can determine, was to sell the liberal group on those aspects of Obama's plan that are a break from George W. Bush's policies, and to sell the centrist group on the toughness of the president's approach and the fact that it squares with Bush's more moderate moves later in his second term.
The dual selling job was helped along immensely by former Vice President Dick Cheney's attacks on Obama right after the president delivered his own speech.
The center and near right, in the meantime, could have the satisfaction of dismissing the over-the-hill Cheney and comment knowingly on how basically "sound" and "realistic" the president's plans really were.
Obama's center-left two-step is also on display in the domestic sphere. He is pushing hard for programs progressives have sought for years--and, in the case of health care, for decades. But on the economic crisis, he has resolutely tacked to the center, pushing aside calls for nationalizing the banks and working closely with the financial establishment to revive the economy.
The establishment Obama is trying to build would make the country better -- more equal, more just and more conscious of the government's constitutional obligations. The far right is being isolated, and Republicans are simply lost.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.