Last night Rich made a forceful case for his conviction that Obama will triangulate because he must triangulate — if he wants to be reelected. Partly in opposition to my column (Rich’s link to my column was broken: convenient!), he writes:
All that said, as I’ve argued before, I believe Obama is going to do some triangulation because, 1) he has no other option–big left-wing initiatives are closed off for now; 2) he wants to get re-elected. You’ll often hear conservatives say Obama is such a sincere left-winger that he won’t and can’t move to the center. But he was just as sincere a left-winger in 2008, when he campaigned on tax cuts and examining the budget line-by-line and living within our means. It’s basically an axiom of American political life that liberals who want to get elected or re-elected president have to trim their sails. And we can assume that Obama, no matter what he says about how he’s willing to be a righteous one-termer, wants to get reelected.
So he’s going to triangulate. How much is the question. His proposal today for a federal pay freeze is a move to the center in a decidedly minor key. But it’s also relatively painless. If he finds a half-dozen of these kind of moves, he might soften his image as a partisan liberal a bit. Not enough, though, which is why I think he’s going to have to come up with some sort of big proposal for not terribly credible budget reductions. Say, a 10-year plan that generates a fairly large number for savings over that period, but that backloads most of it to year 6 and beyond, when he’ll no longer be in office even if reelected.
Consider yourself warned!
I think Rich makes a good point here. Obama must change his image if he’s going to win reelection. And if that is the definition of triangulation, then I think I was probably wrong and Rich was right. But I’m not sure that an attempted image makeover fully qualifies or will do the trick. If memory serves, much of Clinton’s triangulation was symbolic, superficial or trivial: school uniforms, V-chip, poll-tested vacations. I don’t think any of those things alone would have earned reelection for Clinton in 1996 (particularly against a stronger GOP candidate than Bob Dole).
Many of the foreseeable opportunities for Obama to triangulate reside outside of his control. For instance, as Ramesh noted in the magazine, Clinton’s rehabilitation began with the Oklahoma City bombing. He gave a good speech and then cynically used the tragedy to demonize the GOP and conservative talk radio. Obama certainly can’t plan on something like that and, heaven forbid, should such a tragedy transpire, milking it for political advantage comes with profound risks for Obama.
Moreover, the big kahuna of Clinton’s race to the center was his signing of welfare reform. I’m open to correction, but it seems to me the only major legislation coming down the pike of similar stature and ideological resonance would be the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. Will Obama really sign such a thing? I doubt it.
Also, Obama is a much worse salesman than Bill Clinton. There’s still a debate about whether Obama is even a good salesman at all. But if the health-care debate (never mind Copehagen, Seoul, etc.) demonstrated anything, it is that Obama is not nearly the closer his fans thought he was. For a year, the White House said Obama was one more speech away from sealing the deal, and after every speech Obamacare seemed a bit less desirable.
Last, a related point. Forget whether Obama is too ideologically rigid to move to the center. I think he’s too arrogant to admit he was wrong about anything significant. That constrains his options for how to triangulate. He’ll point fingers at Pelosi and the congressional Dems (and since he outsourced his domestic policy to them, he’s got ample ammo), but he won’t admit blame save for weaselly stuff like “I underestimated how evil the Republicans are.” That’s a big liability when you’re trying to convince voters you’ve learned the right lessons from the midterms.
The one area where I think Obama has an advantage over Clinton is that he’s less vulnerable to a primary challenge. The white left will not take responsibility for destroying the reelection chances of the first black president. That’s gives Obama some wiggle room if he knows how to use it.
So yeah, Obama will “triangulate” in some way, but I still don’t think it will do the trick.