Obama the Unhappy Triangulator

by Rich Lowry

The tone of Obama’s remarks last night would have been more appropriate to denouncing a North Korean nuclear test than to announcing the glorious advent of the bi-partisan cooperation he’s said he’s wanted for years. He’s clearly not happy about his current predicament, but there’s really only one way out — to try to efface as much of his image as a partisan liberal as possible. That’s why we’re seeing minor symbolic gestures (endorsing an earmark ban and a federal pay freeze), some substantive movement (free trade deal with South Korea), and bi-partisan dealmaking (the tax bargain). Obama is unquestionably an ideologue, but even ideologues are capable of rationally calculating their self-interest. Which is why he ran sounding like a moderate in 2008 and why he’s embarked on his current course. From the Washington Post today:

Although his liberal supporters are furious about the decision, President Obama’s willingness to extend all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts is part of what White House officials say is a deliberate strategy: to demonstrate his ability to compromise with Republicans and portray the president as the last reasonable man in a sharply partisan Washington.

The move is based on a political calculation, drawn from his party’s midterm defeat, that places a premium on winning back independent voters.

The strategy emerged from hours of post-election meetings among senior administration officials who, after poring over returns, exit polls and midterm history, have determined that the loss of independent voters who supported Democrats in 2008 cost the party dozens of races this year. That conclusion places Obama at odds with many liberal Democrats, who say the midterm losses were the result in part of a political base dispirited by the president’s penchant for compromise.

Will it work? I think nothing he’s done so far comes close to the kind of re-positioning he needs. I believe it will take him advancing a bold tax-reform plan, offering a grand bargain on Social Security, or proposing a plan for a 10-year balanced budget (outside of interest payments). I was talking to some policy mavens last week who think he’s going to do the last of these. It would be very hard to get there, but he might be able to do it with enough “loophole closings,” price controls on health care, spending caps, and smoke and mirrors. Whatever the case, we shouldn’t fool ourselves about how self-destructive Obama is going to be. As I write today, he probably considers going down in a blaze of glory something that’s admirable only from afar. It’s one thing for Nancy Pelosi to torch her speakership in a fit of dogmatism and foolhardy courage; it’s quite another for him to do the same with his presidency.

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