Has Barack Obama shifted to the left since his election as president? The question would seem absurd to most progressives, many of whom believe that Barack Obama has abandoned progressive policy commitments made during the campaign on issues ranging from GLBT and abortion rights to terrorist suspect treatment.
But the “Obama has abandoned the center” narrative is a staple of conservative and some “centrist” criticism of Obama, particularly on the current hot topics of health care reform and climate change legislation. David Brooks made the case most luridly in a July 20 New York Times column entitled “The Liberal Suicide March.” Clive Crook of The Atlantic followed up with a piece claiming that by “splitting with moderates,” Obama was “repudiating one of the most brilliant campaigns ever seen.” And pointing to the difficulties the administration is having with the Blue Dogs, Republican speechwriter Troy Senick of RealClearPolitics attributes all the blame to Obama, suggesting he is “perilously close to breaking the coalition that was built for him.”
It’s important to understand that this sort of repositioning of Obama by his critics, while possibly sincere, is also one of the oldest political tricks in the book. Back when I was policy director for the famously “centrist” Democratic Leadership Council, we used to say there were two ways to “seize the center”: the first was to occupy political high ground with policies and messages that resonated with a strong majority of the electorate, without abandoning any core principles; but the second, to put it crudely, was simply to push the other side out by labeling them as “extremists” or “ideologues.” Doing both (as, say, Bill Clinton did in 1995-96) is naturally the most effective approach, but repositioning your opponents rhetorically has always been wildly popular among people in both parties who don’t particularly want to change their own policies to accord with public opinion, and hope that tarring the other side as extremist will indirectly position themselves as closer to “the center.”
This is largely what we are seeing from Republicans who don’t particularly want to admit that they have in fact moved to a more rigorously ideological position on issues like health care (abandoning even their own prior reform proposals), climate change (where denying the very existence of climate change has made a huge comeback during the last few months), and the budget (where supply-siders, who until very recently derided budget deficits as meaningless, have suddenly returned to a neo-Hooverite public austerity posture).
Now you can make the argument that this whole question of positioning is irrelevant, and there are certainly a lot of Democrats and Republicans who despise the very idea of “the center,” as a place where principles are sacrificed and deals with devils are cut. But like it or not, there is political value in “the center” in a country where “moderate” remains the strongly preferred ideological self-identification, and on complex issues like health care reform and climate change where voters feel better if proposals have broad support and can claim to be “pragmatic.”
If “the center” does matter, then it should be clear that Obama’s critics shouldn’t have plenary rights to define it as they wish. In this respect, the problem is the same as with the closely associated conservative charge that Obama has “abandoned bipartisanship.” Those who refuse to cooperate with Obama and then blame him for “partisanship” or excessive liberalism should not be allowed to have it both ways.
The best measure of whether Barack Obama has “shifted” in any particular direction since taking office remains what he promised to do as a candidate. His positioning on health care reform hasn’t shifted in any significant way, and to the extent that it has at all, it has been a move in the direction of his critics on the right. The same is true of climate change legislation, and, given what he was saying on the campaign trail after the financial sector collapse, on the budget and on economic stimulus legislation.
The real problem here, which is evident from the comments of Brooks, Crook and Senick, is that Obama’s critics from the right seem to have been under the impression that candidate Obama didn’t mean it when he advanced positions deemed as “liberal,” and won strictly because of his talk about bipartisanship and pragmatism, which they define as a willingness to sacrifice his actual platform to their own point of view, contradictions be damned. This is a counterpart to the disappointment of some progressives who seem to believe that candidate Obama cynically took “centrist” positions out of a political expediency that is no longer necessary or tolerable now that Democrats control the White House and have healthy margins in both houses of Congress.
The best evidence is that Barack Obama is, for the most part, and subject to later verification, largely governing as he campaigned, and particularly so on health care reform and climate change. For all the efforts from left and right to “reposition” him, what we saw in 2008 is what we are getting in 2009. Let his critics spend some time explaining their own positions.
Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.
By Ed Kilgore