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The Carletonian

The centrist echo chamber

<f the writing of this column, President Obama’s approval rating is hovering at an average of 51 percent. This, after a “shellacking” in the midterms when his ship seemed to be sinking (at which point he was around 44 percent). The two primary explanations for this resurgence have been the improving economic outlook and Obama’s apparent move to the political center.

The first reason, the economy, seems to be accurate, as Gallup reports people are as optimistic about the economy as they have been in three years. The second explanation, however, speaks more to a Washington obsession with bipartisan centrist appearances than any ideological adjustment by Obama.

Since the elections, there have been three events that gave President Obama the chance to seem above the fray of political partisanship. Only one of them was genuinely nonpartisan:  his beautiful Tucson speech, which was praised by those of all political stripes. The other two, his accomplishments during the lame duck session and his changes to his senior staff, actually showed little change in his governing philosophy but rather an ability to be a deft politician.

Let’s start with the lame duck session, which saw the passing of the START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, a new food safety bill, the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy about gays in the military and a big bipartisan tax cut deal. Did any of these signify an ideological shift by Obama? No.

In fact, most of these bills were ones for which he and Democrats had long been advocating. Obama had negotiated the START treaty last March and had been pushing the Senate to ratify it since then; the food safety bill bolstered regulation of the food industry and had been on the Democratic wish list for awhile; and repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was one of Obama’s campaign promises and has been a liberal goal for years.

The tax cut deal was the only major bill that really showed much compromise, as he had to stomach a two-year extension of tax cuts for the wealthy, something he had long opposed and insists he will again when the issue is up for debate in 2012. However, in exchange for accepting those two years (remember, Republicans had wanted a permanent extension), Obama got a lot of things he had wanted for a while, like a payroll tax holiday and the extension of unemployment benefits and earned income tax credit. In addition, many economists expect the measure will do a lot to bolster the economy over the next two years, just in time for re-election.

Next was the “reshuffling” of his staff, highlighted by Bill Daley – former JP Morgan executive and Clinton Commerce Secretary – as Obama’s new chief of staff. Hailed by the business community as a great move and mourned by some liberals as a cave to that same community, Obama’s choice of Daley was heralded as a shrewd choice that symbolized his move to the center. In reality, however, although he has disagreed with certain Obama policies over the past two years, Daley has dedicated much of his career to Democratic Party politics. He has never showed himself to be on any side but the left.

Obama, in his Super Bowl interview with Fox News host and chronic interrupter Bill O’Reilly, supported the idea that his politics haven’t changed. When asked if he had moved to the center, Obama replied that he had not; he was the same person he had always been. His policies would reflect the same philosophy.

Why then does it seem like he has moved to the center? One reason is probably that the lack of hyperbolic screams of socialism makes the current climate seem much less polarizing and partisan than did the first two years. When all Democratic policies were labeled as far left government takeovers, anything lacking those charges seems by default to be closer to the center. Many had been so conditioned to hearing conservative cries about Big Government that when they ceased, it seemed the nature of the policies had changed.

And then there’s the media. Carleton alumnus John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, Co-Editors in Chief of Politico, recently penned a column called “How President Obama Plays the Media Like a Fiddle.” They write, regarding the perception of his newfound centrist credentials, “He is doing it by exploiting some of the most long-standing traits among reporters who cover politics and government – their favoritism for politicians perceived as ideologically centrist and willing to profess devotion to Washington’s oft-honored, rarely practiced civic religion of bipartisanship.”

They explain that by making gestures – such as inviting old bull politicos like Bill Clinton and David Gergen into the White House for advice and making changes to his staff – Obama could appear to be seeking guidance to correct his liberal mistakes. Furthermore, by making these moves, the White House could make use of the media’s preference for bipartisanship by pushing comparisons to past great presidents.

“Reporters are suckers for comparisons – often glib or even bogus comparisons – between current and past presidents…. Obama has managed to turn the history game to his advantage by ostentatiously inviting comparisons to two more successful presidents:  Reagan and Clinton.”

Lastly, Obama is starting to handle the ripe issues and is adjusting to a new situation. As Americans are anxious about falling behind China and the world, he delivers consistent messages about investing in the country, topped off by his “Winning the Future” State of the Union. He deals with a bad economic picture by passing a huge tax cut deal and tempers liberal outcries by finally getting Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repealed. And finally, he is taking advantage of the fact that Republicans actually now have a responsibility to govern, and using gestures of cooperation and compromise to remain the pragmatic, above-the-fray executive he was elected as.

It’s no wonder some Republican Presidential hopefuls are starting to look towards 2016 and not 2012.

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