Obama and the Limits of Mastery
Bill Clinton tried to create a Third Way. President Obama is doing it. This is exciting, but also disconcerting.
Over the last week, the true nature of Obama’s political project has come into much clearer view. He is out to build a new and enduring political establishment, located slightly to the left of center but including everyone except the far right. That’s certainly a bracing idea, since Washington has not seen a liberal establishment since the mid-1960s.
“Liberal establishment,” of course, sounds terrible to many ears, and Obama would never use the term. But those who led it in its heyday accomplished a great deal, from Medicare to food stamps to Head Start to federal aid for schools. Its proudest achievements were civil rights laws that paved the way for the election of our first African-American president.
But the liberal establishment was also resolutely tough-minded in its approach to foreign policy and national security. Not for nothing was the phrase “cold war liberalism” coined.
And it is no accident that the Vietnam War was that philosophy’s undoing. Fearful that a communist victory in Vietnam would revive the far right’s critique of alleged liberal weakness, Lyndon B. Johnson — whose aspiration was to be a great domestic social reformer — went into Southeast Asia with guns blazing. We know the result.
The disturbing aspect of Obama’s effort to create his new political alignment is that building it requires him to send rather different messages to its component parts. Playing to several audiences at once can lead to awkward moments.
Last Thursday afternoon, for example, the White House invited in journalists, mostly opinion writers, to sell them on the substance of the president’s big speech on Guantanamo and the treatment of detainees.
Unbeknownst to the writers until afterward, they had been divided into two groups, one more centrist with a sprinkling of moderate conservatives, the other more liberal. (I was in the liberal group.) The president made an unscheduled appearance at each briefing. As is his way, he charmed both groups.
The idea, as far as I can determine, was to sell the liberal group on those aspects of Obama’s plan that are a break from George W. Bush’s policies, and to sell the centrist group on the toughness of the president’s approach and the fact that it squares with Bush’s more moderate moves later in his second term.
The dual selling job was helped along immensely by former Vice President Dick Cheney’s attacks on Obama right after the president delivered his own speech.
For the left, which is unhappy about Obama’s decisions on such issues as preventive detention, Cheney’s outlandish explosion was a reminder of how much better Obama is than the guys who came before. While civil libertarians grumbled about parts of Obama’s speech, much of the left concentrated its fire on Cheney.
The center and near right, in the meantime, could have the satisfaction of dismissing the over-the-hill Cheney and comment knowingly on how basically “sound” and “realistic” the president’s plans really were.
And in the next phase of his security efforts, Obama hopes to bring civil libertarians and moderate conservatives to the same table to work out rules on detainees. These would be more protective of their rights than Bush’s were, but tougher than the ACLU might have in mind.
Obama’s center-left two-step is also on display in the domestic sphere. He is pushing hard for programs progressives have sought for years — and, in the case of health care, for decades. But on the economic crisis, he has resolutely tacked to the center, pushing aside calls for nationalizing the banks and working closely with the financial establishment to revive the economy.
And there’s subtlety within his subtlety: Obama wants a more regulated financial market, but he would not disrupt the basic arrangements of American capitalism. If Obama has his way, investment bankers will make a bit less money and pay more in taxes, but they’ll continue to be rich.
The establishment Obama is trying to build would make the country better — more equal, more just and more conscious of the government’s constitutional obligations. The far right is being isolated, and Republicans are simply lost.
But establishments have a habit of becoming too confident in their ability to manipulate people and events, and too certain of their own moral righteousness. Obama’s political and substantive gifts are undeniable. What he needs to realize are the limits of his own mastery.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers GroupWAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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