Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Obama: Centrist or Weakling?

President Obama made most of the concessions to Republicans and Tea Party hardliners that have led to the debt ceiling deal that averted a US default. He gave way to most demands of the Tea Party faction of the Republicans - deep spending cuts and no revenue increases by raising taxes or closing tax loopholes for the rich. The Democrats had little choice but to go along or else crash the US economy.

But they are not happy.  In his Aug. 1 NYTimes column "The President Surrenders" Paul Krugman scathingly explains why Obama's capitulation is a catastrophe in both economic and political terms.  Joe Nocera in his companion "The Tea Party's War on America" talks of this group and the Republicans taking the country hostage and being rewarded with near-complete capitulation by Obama.  Even William McGurn in the right wing WSJ today calls the accord a "conservative victory" and a "striking achievement." 

There is a difference between a Bill Clinton type centrist who compromises and someone who is reluctant to take a stand, and when forced to do so repeatedly backs away to become the appeaser in chief. Emboldened by their successful brinksmanship Republicans are likely to take Obama's (abject) pliability for granted in future negotiations on key issues.  That said, I've a couple of additional observations:
  •  The US government may not be "of the people" or "for the people" in the sense that the Administration and Congress are adequately acting in the interests of the populace, rather than key special interests. That's why approval rates for Obama are at 45% and of Congress at an all time low of 14% according to the latest CNN/ORC poll. But the US government is still "by the people."  Voters put Obama in office in 2008 (particularly those supporting him against Hillary in the primary) and elected many Tea Partiers in 2010.  So at least Americans are fully responsible for the state of their national economy and polity, unlike people living in countries with repressive regimes.
  • As a corollary to the above the US won't get political accountability if the voters remain befuddled about who's responsible for their plight.  Despite the Tea Party and Republicans plunging the nation into a contrived debt crisis an ABC poll today shows Americans lashing out at both parties.  68% and 67% of them disapprove of Republicans and Democrats respectively.  Paul Krugman partly ascribes this to the media, deriding its false sense of balance in his July 28 NYTimes column for tending to blame both sides equally no matter who's actually at fault.  Still, there's enough information out there for Americans to judge their leaders and vote in their own best interest, but many don't. Take the Tea Party that vehemently opposes tax increases even for households making over $250,000 a year.  It should logically attract only the 2% of Americans who are above this threshold, yet over 20% belong to this group.
  • Obama's actions may have weakened Democrats and given away too much of the store for average Americans, but they haven't affected his own re-election chances.  To Democrats and a majority of independents he'll likely be the lesser of two evils when faced with a Republican nominee elected by an increasingly radicalized GOP.  There's also no viable Democratic primary challenger or a third candidate (like NY mayor Michael Bloomberg) on the horizon yet.  So to the GOP rhetoric about making Obama a one term President and the above ABC poll showing him at par nationally and behind Mitt Romney in the key state of Pennsylvania, time will tell. But I'd place my odds on seeing him in office, with or without a spine, till 2016.


Solomon Kleinsmith said...

You can argue over the weakling part, but he is no centrist. His stated views over the years shows a liberal - not a hard core/left wing liberal, or a moderate, but more your run of the mill/average liberal.

He's not a centrist any more than I (an actual centrist) would be a liberal if I compromised with liberals on some piece of legislation, if I were an elected official, or a conservative if I compromised with conservatives to pass a bill. What label fits a person is based on their beliefs, not whether they compromise with people who disagree with them.

Solomon Kleinsmith
Rise of the Center

Sandip Madan said...

Solomon, I won't dispute that Obama isn't a centrist. But that doesn't make him a liberal. Look at his cabinet choices (Gates, Geithner), delayed pullout from Iraq and Afghanistan, weak or no support of health insurance mandates or strong public option, insufficient 2009 stimulus plan, support of the death penalty, etc.

Instead, Obama convinced enough liberals and black voters that he was one of them to topple Hillary in the 2008 primaries. Then McCain alienated Hillary supporters on the rebound by picking Palin as running mate (instead of Tom Ridge or even Lieberman) to smooth Obama's way to the White House.

Obama isn't strongly tethered to liberal or other ideology and instead seems to take the path of least resistance. Liberals now don't see him as compromising on their core ideals as much as caving in and selling them out.

Anonymous said...


What's your prediction on the GOP race? And who sits in WH in 2013? You were right on Bloomberg last time so you have some good instincts, even though you're on the opposite side of my spectrum.


Sandip Madan said...

Kenrod, you're a worthy adversary even as you've kept your identity hidden. :-) I'd give Obama better than 4 to 1 odds of beating Romney this November unless a prominent 3rd liberal or even centrist candidate jumps in to siphon off Obama's left or independent voters.

The real Romney probably shares my centrist views and is likely a much better administrator than Obama. But his "etch-a-sketch" shiftiness on positions and saying whatever the voters of the moment want to hear makes him less palatable to me. He makes Tricky Dick and Slick Willy pale in comparison.

But then again, take heart - after all, both Dick and Willy won. And who'd have thought American voters in their wisdom would re-elect GWB a 2nd time in 2004?