Politico: Obama’s steady centrism
By: John P. Avlon
July 19, 2008 09:19 AM EST
Throughout the left-wing blogosphere, the cry has come: Barack Obama is moving away from them, and to the center. “Moving to the middle is for losers,” cried the politically ambidextrous Arianna Huffington. He’s “betraying his claims of being a new kind of politician,” declared Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos.
But all this outrage ignores the obvious: throughout his career, Obama has consistently framed himself as a post-partisan centrist. He’s been a bridge-builder all his life, first between black and white, and now between left and right.
It’s a formula for victory in a country that’s essentially center right. Even after all the alienation from the Bush administration, a new Washington Post/ABC poll affirms that only 19% of Americans describe themselves as liberal, while 43% say moderate and 35% conservative.
In his prime-time introduction to the American people, giving the nominating speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama drew the loudest applause when he proclaimed, “there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.”
Whole chapters in his post-Senate-election book “The Audacity of Hope” extol the virtues of centrism—condemning inflexible activists on the far-right and far-left for stopping progress and alienating Americans from the political process.
His first ad for president began by professing “we are one people” (an implicit dis to John Edwards’ “two Americas” riff) and then went on to establish his bipartisan bona fides, claiming that “In Illinois he brought Republicans and Democrats together, cutting taxes for workers and winning health care for children,” followed by a testimonial from Republican State Senator Kirk Dillard (a post-primary McCain delegate who’s since taken heat for the ad).
Obama’s primary stump speech was an attack on the partisan warfare that has paralyzed Washington—and he rose in part as the alternative to Hillary Clinton’s reputation for polarization. He won independent voters in open Democratic primaries by two to one, and had consistent wins among conservative red state Democrats outside of Appalachia.
This self-consciously centrist campaign framing is not the opportunistic smoke and mirrors his detractors describe. While he doesn’t have the deep centrist record that John McCain developed over two decades in the Senate—or the Profiles in Courage-esque political scars to prove it—he does have a real record of working across the aisle on fiscal discipline and national security, two key criteria for centrist voters.
The Coburn-Obama “Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act”—introduced with leading fiscal conservative Tom Coburn (R-OK) and passed in late 2006—created a searchable “Google for government” [www.usaspending.gov] that took a big step toward the spending transparency long advocated by conservatives from Grover Norquist to Newt Gingrich.
On national security, Obama authored legislation with Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) to monitor and stop the illegal sale of WMDs and terrorist weapons like shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. He worked with Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to require the President to submit to Congress a progress report on securing global nuclear stockpiles.
There is plenty more centrist substance among the 50-odd pages of policy proposals on the Obama campaign Web site. While cutting the military is a standard chorus from the liberal hymnal, Obama wants to increase the size of the military and he offers specifics—65,000 new soldiers for the overstretched Army and 27,000 new Marines. While he wants to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the 2% of American households who make more than $250,000 a year, Obama has taken the unusual step for a Democrat of proposing new tax cuts, including more than doubling the college tuition tax credit and eliminating income taxes altogether for Americans over 65 who make under $50,000 a year.
These are not exceptions. Obama positioned himself to the right of the Democratic primary pack on virtually every issue except Iraq. On health care, he was attacked for not having a single-payer plan that covered every American. While Clinton proposed a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and a five-year freeze on interest rates, Obama’s instincts were comparatively free-market, less command and control.
Contrary to the stereotype of liberals stridently insisting on secularism, Obama is the first Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter to make his Christian faith a cornerstone of his political appeal. He has been courting the evangelical center since the primaries. More recently, Jesse Jackson threatened to “cut his nuts off” because Obama’s focus on responsible inner-city fatherhood departed from the root-cause playbook of liberal victimhood. Even the founder of the centrist (and historically Clinton-boosting) DLC, Al From, now sees a kindred-spirit: “This general election, more than most we have seen, is going to be a battle for the center…the more we learn about Senator Obama's policies, the more we will see some of the policies the DLC has championed for years.”
Obama, whose grandmother voted for Nixon, does not buy into the mutual incomprehensibility of ideological politics. He hasn’t fallen into the over-heated Bush-hating that has consumed so many on the left. He even has some respectful words for Ronald Reagan—which he took fire for from fellow Democrats in the primaries. But like Reagan, and for that matter John McCain, Obama always makes a point of rhetorically reaching out, calling on “Democrats, Republicans and Independents” to rally around his candidacy.
Obama recognizes that his willingness to reach out to all sides, and eagerness to avoid labels, make his political personality something of a Rorscharch test. It’s inevitable that a politician inclined toward consensus will disappoint many of the true believers—especially those on the far left who see him as an avenging liberal angel. But those believers have misunderstood the roots of their candidate’s broad appeal: Far from an abrupt general election shift, Obama’s steady centrism has been the secret to his success.
John P. Avlon is the author of “Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.” He served as chief speechwriter and deputy policy director for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.