As I listened to Obama’s inaugural address, although I harbored no illusions about the difficult task ahead, I felt that I was swimming in a sea of happiness, as I heard him gently but firmly declare the country’s liberation from the past (rejecting as “false” the Bush administration’s notion that national security is incompatible with constitutional liberty) and simultaneously reject the Clinton administration notion that the era of big government is over (“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works”).
Therefore, there was something off-putting when I turned on my TV the next morning to see pundit after pundit praising him as a “centrist.” I had three problems with that.
First, as Paul Newman used to remind us, The Nation is valuable because it helps define where the center is. The center can shift. When Obama added to his ritual description of us as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” a new category–“nonbelievers”–it was almost unbelievable, as he quickly helped redefine where the center is. Second, based on what we know about Obama–his books, his initial intuitive stand against the Iraq War, his Senate voting record, his campaign, his inaugural speech–I don’t believe he’s a centrist. At most, he seems a liberal wolf in centrist sheep’s clothing. And finally, faced with the dire economic crisis, his commitment to Keynesian economic stimulus and renewed regulatory rigor (see his inaugural reference to not letting the market “spin out of control”) suggests that at minimum, he flunked Centrism 101.
Rather, I prefer to believe that Obama’s reach across the aisle, his cabinet appointments and his openings to the renegade Joe Lieberman and erstwhile opponent John McCain are part of his work-in-progress plan to advance an agenda that goes beyond anything the so-called center might contain. Whether or not it will work–that is the question.