Seeking Obama’s Center

Seeking Obama’s Center

The pundits insist Obama will govern from the center, but to me it seems he’s dedicated to redefining where the center is.

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Whatever one’s feelings about our new president, there was something thrilling about being at the the Huffington Post/Atlantic Philanthropies pre-inauguration bash at the Newseum in Washington with 1,500 journalists and pols, all of whom seemed to be celebrating and exulting in Obama’s coming to power.

One had the same feeling earlier in the evening at the home of Myra MacPherson, Izzy Stone’s biographer, where left-liberal journalists predominated.

And the next day, as I listened to his inaugural address, although I think I harbored no illusions about the difficult task ahead, I still felt that I was swimming in the same sea of happiness, as I heard him gently but firmly declare the country’s liberation from the past (and reject “as false” the Bush administration’s notion that national security was incompatible with constitutional liberty, that it is not a question of choosing “between our safety and our ideals”); and then simultaneously rejecting the Clinton administration’s notion that the era of big government was over (“The question we ask today is not whether government is too big or too small but whether it works”).

Therefore, there was something off-putting the next morning when I turned on my TV only to see pundit after pundit–be it Pat Buchanan on the right, “Morning Joe” Scarborough on the center-right or Mike Barnicle in the center–all praising him as a “centrist.”

I had three problems with that:

First, as our friend and backer Paul Newman used to remind us, The Nation was valuable because it helps define where the center is. The center can shift. When Obama added to his ritualistic description of America 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 was.

Second, based on what we know about Obama–his books, his initial intuitive stand against the war in Iraq, his Senate voting record, his campaign, his inaugural speech–I don’t believe it. At most, he seems to me a liberal wolf in centrist sheep’s clothing.

And finally, faced with the ever-more-dire economic crisis, his commitment to a Keynes-based economic stimulus and renewed regulatory rigor (see his inaugural reference to not letting the market “spin out of control”) suggests that, at a minimum, he flunked Centrism 101.

Rather, I prefer to believe that his reach across the aisle, his cabinet appointments and his opening to the renegade Joe Lieberman and his erstwhile opponent John McCain himself are part of his pragmatic 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.

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