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How Obama Can Define Moderation

Posted on Jan 24, 2011
White House / Pete Souza

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

President Barack Obama faces a choice in this week’s State of the Union message: Does he spend the next two years consolidating the gains he has made, or does he go into retreat?

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My prediction: He will go for consolidation that conservatives will try to label as retreat, even as they attack him for not retreating fast enough.

Obama will deliver his address Tuesday evening in an expectedly strong position. His approval ratings are rising and, at least according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, nearly as many Americans see him as moderate as view him as liberal.

The immense activity of the lame-duck congressional session is part of the resurgence—including the unfortunate tax deal that made everything else possible. So is the absence of tens of millions of dollars in Republican attack ads that dominated the airwaves before November’s elections.

Then there was Obama’s speech on the Tucson tragedy that allowed him to transcend partisanship. He spoke as a president and as a preacher—the latter a role he performs well (think of the 2004 Red and Blue America speech) but didn’t play much in the last two years. Count on more preaching this week.


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House Republicans are playing their own roles exactly as Obama would cast them. With their vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans began their tenure on a negative footing, railing against what was done while offering nothing to put in its place. Whatever the problems with last year’s law—and it is slowly gaining popularity as Americans look at what it actually does—the country does not see nothing as a realistic alternative.

Now Republicans are arguing over just how much they will cut from the federal budget, focusing less on specific programs to prune than on how big an ax they want to take to domestic government in general.

Here is Obama’s big opportunity. The reasons behind Bill Clinton’s comeback after the 1994 elections have been widely misread. He didn’t kowtow to the new GOP Congress. He battled their cuts in “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment,” and beat them. Republican overreach helped Clinton redefine the political center in a way that put the GOP’s congressional leaders outside its ambit. Newt Gingrich and his followers then scrambled back Clinton’s way, and that’s when the deal-making began.

Obama will no doubt call for bipartisan cooperation to achieve long-term fiscal balance, but he should also be prepared to fight. With this crowd, his slogan should be: hope, but verify.

Obama’s priority must be restoring robust growth and job creation. That is where the country’s true center is—both politically and geographically.

The next election hangs on whether jobs are coming back to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Count on Obama to talk about restoring American manufacturing.

Consider that Red and Blue America speech again. “We have more work to do,” he said back in 2004, “for the workers I met in Galesburg, Ill., who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now they’re having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour.” He warned against “blind optimism,” defined as “the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it.” Smart guy, that young Obama.

It’s also why any proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age is a nonstarter. There is no reason to waste political capital on Social Security cuts that would do nothing to close the nation’s deficit within any reasonable period.

On this issue, the Washington establishment is entirely out of touch with the heartland. It’s easy for newspaper columnists, CEOs, investment bankers and senators to work beyond 68 or 70. It’s not so easy for construction workers, nurses’ aides, firefighters or retail salespeople who are on their feet all day.

Some bipartisan work can get done on education reform and energy independence. And Obama should have the guts to call, at the very least, for a ban on those large gun magazines of the sort that made the slaughter in Tucson worse. Even Dick Cheney says he is open to that. A restoration of the assault-weapons ban would be better still. 

If Obama’s primary political goal is to keep himself in the ideological center, he has to work hard to define it his way. And, bless them, the House Republicans will be doing all they can to make Obama look like the soul of moderation and reasonableness.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Janelle, April 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wow! Great thkninig! JK

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By samosamo, January 27, 2011 at 1:18 am Link to this comment



o has NO of doing anything different from his betraying the
people who elected him. If he did, he would have long since
gone beyond any kind of moderation.

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prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, January 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm Link to this comment

It doesn’t matter what OJama says, its unlikely he will be re elected.

There will be years, of ahead by shills like E.J., to try and get OJama back in.

Why would it matter, the difference between him and a Rethuglican, is infintesimal..

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By surfnow, January 25, 2011 at 10:58 am Link to this comment

Does he spend the next two years consolidating the gains he has made, or does he go into retreat?

I guess I just have to get out of that cave I must’ve been living in. Here I even missed all this progress and gains Obama has made these past two years.

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Peter Knopfler's avatar

By Peter Knopfler, January 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm Link to this comment

Obama moderation process yes folks why get your hands
dirty, send drones to kill babies children and old
men. Can´t arrest a drone just as you cannot srrender
to an aircraft shoot them all, america obama motto
originally came from the crusades where the Pope Said
them all and let rev. wright sort them out. Mean
while back in the toilet, Communist China at the
white house chinese piano player played a popular
Communist tune describing the USA as a Jackal and
critics of Korean war, right under Obamas nose the
chinese insult you and back in Communist China my
friend in China says they are mocking the USA. I have
two friends there,in Communist China, and this
propaganda is thick and dirty, spreading like dog
poop all over the world eating dogs and cats.

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By Bird48, January 24, 2011 at 4:28 pm Link to this comment

How any American could have thought that Obama was/is a liberal is beyond my imagination. If he gets any closer to the “center” he’s going to fall off the right side. And I thought that Clinton had a corner on triangulation and spin.

What a joke the so-called Dems have become.

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By Queenie, January 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm Link to this comment


When I think of what Clinton did to single parents (mostly mothers) and their children when he ended “Welfare as we know it” I am apt to weep. What a cold, calculating piece of shit he is.

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By Anarcissie, January 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm Link to this comment

esi42, January 24 at 7:36 am:

I really gotta stop reading his columns

What, and miss this humor?

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By rollzone, January 24, 2011 at 11:09 am Link to this comment

hello. only two options, coincidentally the very limit
of my imagination. the prez has not played his sexual
infidelity card yet, and opening trade with India will
entail a doubling of spending and the national deficit.
and then there will be Thailand. we will have to
continue his reign for those poor people of Thailand.
we will have easily amassed a $6 trillion deficit of
unprecedented unsustainability before he is retired,
while China is being consumed by capitalism. the
spending has only just begun. progressive reformers,
spend a little tax on me.

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By Big B, January 24, 2011 at 9:24 am Link to this comment

Prez Barry has once again decided to play draw poker with his corporate masters. He has/will once again fold after receiving his forth card.

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By kerryrose, January 24, 2011 at 9:21 am Link to this comment

Clinton did not battle cuts to Medicare, the cuts were made… and deeply.  He ended ‘Welfare as we know it’ and our poverty levels and suffering have grown accordingly.  Welfare to Work where, instead of job training, single parents were buses hundreds of miles away to work at minimum wage (primarily fast food) jobs while their children were all but abandoned.  Family values.

Clinton called himself a ‘Republican’ jokingly.  Haiti?  Devastation on Clinton’s plate as well as Bush.

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By esi42, January 24, 2011 at 2:36 am Link to this comment

I really gotta stop reading his columns

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