President Obama has Already Redefined the Political Center

It took less than a month for the 24-7 news media and political pundit class to pile on President Obama and resume their old habit of underestimating him. "His appointments were not properly vetted". "The stimulus package is a pork-laden mishmash". "He’s too nice to the conservatives"  "He still hasn’t gotten his kids a dog". Through all of the endless analysis our new President maintains his balance and seems to coolly rise above the fray. He seems so….. Presidential…..

For the cable news channels and the political websites, the prospect of an absence of conflict and crisis must be terrifying. What happens if the Economic Depression is avoided and all of these new programs result in an economic recovery in 2010? People will stop tuning to the news media and start reading novels or something. The absence of perspective and understanding is amazing. The Washington insiders, as they always do, are complaining that the new folks in the White House don’t know how to find the washroom yet. The national media keeps reporting, as news, the fact the different parts of Congress seem to disagree about the stimulus package. Congress is supposed to represent different perspectives. That’s their job. This is a big and diverse country, with many different interests and points of view. To some degree Congress mirrors the nation’s diversity.  Then, at a certain point in the policy making process, crunch time comes and someone must cut a deal. While I worry that the situation could become so toxic that no one will compromise, the prospect of a Depression should be scary enough to prod Congress into a deal.

I think it is important to understand what this new Administration has already managed to do since January 20th.  With a number of real and symbolic steps, they have begun to redefine the political center in American politics. In the United States, politics and especially Presidential politics is about defining the political center. The stimulus package is a case in point. The Bush Administration approach to the economic crisis was to define it as a crisis in the finance industry and to enact a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street. While Obama supported that step, and will soon add to it, he also started to talk about the need for a more direct pump priming stimulus that would cost about $800 billion. The Obama plan would include: funds for state and local governments, extra funds for unemployed and poor people, funds for infrastructure- especially the green variety- and tax cuts for all but the wealthy. What is now being fought over in Congress? An $800 billion stimulus package with all of the pieces that President Obama advocated.   The fight is about the relative size of the pieces that the Obama Administration defined.  

That is the key idea to keep in mind here. The definition of political feasibility has changed dramatically in the past month. In environment, in science, in foreign policy and throughout the broad spectrum of public policy issues, the center has shifted. States will be able to set more stringent auto emission and fuel economy standards. Guantanamo will be closed. Our diplomats have resumed quiet conversation with our enemies.  Equal pay rights have been reinforced by new federal legislation. Poor children will find their health care financed by a new federal tax on cigarettes. The effort to transform our economy to a sustainable and green economy has been tied to the effort to avoid an economic depression. These are just the items that reach the media. Churning below the surface is over a decade of deferred governance that began in earnest when articles of impeachment were voted against Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998 and continued until January 20, 2009.

It is true that the new Administration has made mistakes. Who doesn’t? In baseball, a batter fails 7 of 10 times, hits 300 and gets into the Hall of Fame. Obama is hitting well over 500 and should really not be underestimated. Last week he met with relatives of American terrorist victims who were angry about the closing of Guantanamo. President Obama assured them that closing this jail of ill repute did not mean he was about to allow criminals loose on the streets of our cities. In the NY Times on February 6, Jeff Zeleny reported on the impact of this meeting on one of the participants: 

"John Clodfelter of Mechanicsville, Va., whose son, Kenneth, was killed in the Cole bombing, said he came to the meeting with apprehension over the decision to close the prison and the delay in prosecutions. But after listening to the president and being assured that the terror suspects would not be released, Mr. Clodfelter said his opinion changed.  "I did not vote for the man, but the way he talks to you, you can’t help but believe in him," Mr. Clodfelter said on Friday evening. "He left me with a very positive feeling that he’s going to get this done right."

The tone in Washington is changing. The President invites his political opponents to a Superbowl party instead demonizing them as unpatriotic or naive.  There is an effort to dial down the level of intensity and dial up the time devoted to thought and reflection. This may make for less political theatre and may not be good for the political media business, but it is a refreshing development. Still, the news media shouldn’t worry,  they can always interview Dick Cheney if they want to inject a little partisan contentiousness into the evening news.

The slow, steady, and yes un-dramatic events since January 20th need to be seen in their entirety. A page has been turned. A new agenda and a new sensibility have already been put in place. Without great fanfare, the definition of legitimate policy prescriptions has changed.  Not bad for about three weeks in the White House.

President Obama has Already Redefined the Political Center