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Rhetorical, Not Substantive, Centrism



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Watching Pres. Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, it was hard not to close one’s eyes and hear the voice of Bill Clinton. The only thing missing was: “The era of big government is over.” Had Obama used those words, he would have had to pay royalties to Dick Morris, who actually wrote the line, and whose participation was hidden at the time from the White House staff by Clinton.

Obama is in the midst of his own Clintonian shift to the middle: extending the Bush tax cuts, replacing Rahm Emanuel with Bill Daley, and replacing virtually his entire economic team. Unlike Clinton, he has made no attempt to hide his outreach to a new crop of outside advisers, including Bill Clinton himself and former Bush campaign adviser Matthew Dowd. It is head-snapping.

The result was a State of the Union speech so filled with cognitive dissonance as to be incoherent. Self-contradiction abounded. We must reform Social Security, Obama declared, but not reduce benefits for future retirees or expose them to the vicissitudes of the stock market. That pretty much removes 80 percent of a potential compromise on entitlement reform from the table. We must reduce government spending — but increase “investments” in education, energy, and infrastructure by tens of billions of dollars. We must finish what we started in Iraq and Afghanistan — but bring all the troops home as soon as possible. That Obama could deliver these words with such apparent conviction is a testament to his political skills, but an indictment of his leadership. His only north star is himself. As one adviser told New York magazine in an unintentionally revealing observation, “He wants to be Barack Obama again.” Which leaves one wondering: Who has he been for the past two years?

We don’t know whether the American people will buy Obama channeling Clinton. Reading the tea leaves of the 2012 elections is speculative at this early juncture. But what Obama doesn’t seem to realize is that Clinton’s move to the middle wasn’t just rhetorical, it was substantive. He signed sweeping welfare reform, signed a budget passed by a Republican Congress that reined in spending and cut taxes, and signed a federal death-penalty statute. If Obama doesn’t back up his words with similar deeds embracing conservative public policy, voters will see his centrist head-fake as political posturing and reward (or more likely punish) him accordingly.

— Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist, is chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.



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