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Repositioning Obama

The president hasn't "abandoned the center"--but that won't stop critics from tarring him for it.

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."

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