A President's Fake Centrism

Who will fall for the moderation masquerade?

Tuesday morning Obama unveiled the latest stage in his reinvention campaign: A Wall Street Journal article announcing “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”

Hiring Wall Street and Clinton administration veteran William Daley as chief of staff, compromising with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax rates, and taking a measured response to the Tucson tragedy, President Obama has left commentators speculating that he will moderate his approach.

Dick Morris, architect of Bill Clinton’s post-’94 political rebound, believes the Tucson speech “signaled a real attempt to move to the center.” With co-writer Eileen McGann, he asks: “Will he be able to triangulate? Can he win in 2012 by moving to the center? A president always has the option of correcting his mistakes, reversing his positions, and governing the country by moving it in the right direct[ion]. And those kinds of presidents—like Bill Clinton—usually get themselves re-elected.”

Analyses such as Morris’s assume that the president, as political scientist David Mayhew once described Members of Congress, is just another of those “single-minded seekers of reelection.” But evidence, such as his pig-headed approach to health-care reform, suggests he sees himself as a transformative figure. The fundamental difference between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is that the former is a politician; the latter, an ideologue. An agenda, not polls, primarily motivates the ideologue.

Bill Clinton’s move to the center could not have surprised anyone familiar with his political career. As the youngest governor in America, Bill Clinton alienated the Arkansas electorate by raising taxes and surrounding himself with outsiders, both geographically and culturally, from his constituents. After losing his reelection bid in 1980, Clinton regained his position in 1982 by recasting himself as a centrist.

A nearly identical scenario played out during his first presidential term. Offending the electorate through an aggressive push for gays in the military, bureaucratization of health care, and a ban on “assault” weapons, Clinton’s party, to borrow a word from President Obama, took a shellacking in the 1994 mid-term elections. Similarly, Obama pushed an unpopular health-care bill through Congress and a massive “stimulus” plan that further depressed the economy. The voters responded in November by awarding Republicans 63 additional House seats, six new Senate seats, and a half dozen more governorships.

But there’s where the similarities are likely to end. Though 2010 appeared as a déjà vu of 1994, it doesn’t follow that Obama will learn the same lessons that his Democratic presidential predecessor did.

Clinton’s move to the center was prefaced not only by a similar shift as governor, but was anticipated by genuinely centrist legislation championed during his first year as president. Clinton’s most substantial legislative legacy, the North America Free Trade Agreement, passed during his first year in office mainly because of Republican support.

What bipartisan measure of such import can Obama point to?

Put another way, there is much in President Clinton’s pre-1994 history that indicated governance from the center. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been thoroughly marinated in the culture of the Left.

The child of, in Obama’s words, “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position paper liberalism,” the future president weaned himself on dorm-room discussions of “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.” He worked for Ralph Nader’s NYPIRG and later as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. His constituents during his sojourn in the Illinois state senate were poor blacks and affluent white academics, enabling him to take the most extreme positions without fear of electoral repercussions. Surrounding himself in adulthood with such extremists as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Barack Obama could no more be Bill Clinton than Bill Clinton could be Barack Obama.

The most glaring sign that the president’s post-election positioning is not genuine has been his propensity to circumvent the legislative process. Quietly slipping end-of-life counseling, the so-called “death panels” excised from the health-care legislation, into the Federal Register suggested Obama’s post-’10 approach. So, too, did the Environmental Protection Agency’s imposition of new carbon limits despite the similar cap-and-trade bill getting nowhere in a Democratic Congress. Ditto for the Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” empowering itself to regulate the internet despite Congressmen of both parties warning the FCC of the illegality of such a heavy-handed usurpation by the unelected body.

As egg-on-their-face pundits learned after trying to cast the Tucson tragedy as the Oklahoma City Bombing redux, facts don’t always cooperate with the narrative. Though 2010 may have been 1994 all over again, Obama isn’t the new Clinton. Events alone don’t preordain the future. Actors matter too. The reactions of very different men to very similar events will necessarily vary.

Bill Clinton worked with Republicans after 1994. Barack Obama will work around Republicans after 2010.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Sky News, PBS, CSPAN, and other broadcast networks. His articles have appeared in National Review, the Boston Globe, and City Journal. He blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.