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Sun., Dec. 26, 2010

Obama’s centrism based on reality

The fallout from the recent debate over extending the Bush tax cuts has helped President Barack Obama counter the conservative myth that he’s a left-wing ideologue seeking to socialize the United States.

At the same time, Obama’s success in winning inclusion of some significant provisions sought by fellow Democrats and his stance on two important social issues shows how silly it is for some liberal dissidents and pundits to liken him to the weak, yet often rigid approach of President Jimmy Carter.

Presidents often are defined as much by their friends as their enemies. And the bitter, last-ditch opposition by House Democratic liberals to tax bill provisions aiding wealthier taxpayers will help Obama reoccupy the crucial center of American politics.

That’s always important, but perhaps more so for Democratic presidents than Republican ones. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush took advantage of the fact there are more conservatives than liberals to base their electoral strategy on the solid support of the right, adding enough moderates to achieve a majority.

Democrats don’t have that luxury, though many of the party’s most outspoken liberals seem to have trouble understanding that. As a result, its leaders need to keep the left satisfied while they craft policies aimed at the center.

That’s how all three recent Democratic presidents won or retained the White House, though all three initially took advantage of the failures of incumbent Republican presidents. It’s how Bill Clinton rebuilt his political strength after the big GOP congressional election victory in 1994 and how the tax bill compromise is enabling Obama to do so now.

Carter, essentially less liberal than Clinton or Obama, sought to follow a similar path but was undone by the devastating combination of soaring inflation, the Iranian hostage crisis that came to symbolize his weak international image, and his alienation of the party’s left at a time it had a champion willing to take him on in the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Still, even Kennedy couldn’t wrest party control, though he weakened Carter enough to ensure his general election defeat.

As for Obama, the fervent denunciations over the tax bill were hardly the first time the Democratic left has faulted him as too prone to abandon the liberal orthodoxy they thought he would bring to the presidency.

It also happened when he accepted tax cuts as a significant portion of the 2009 economic stimulus in a futile bid for GOP support; refused to make what would have been a losing fight for the “public option” on the health care bill; and coupled withdrawal from Iraq with the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan.

To some extent, the liberal complaint on the tax bill was both that he agreed to accept compromise to achieve a greater end and that he did so without first waging a bitter battle for Democratic principles.

But on both the public option on the health bill and the estate tax provision in the tax bill, Obama was simultaneously acknowledging political reality and reaching out to independent voters.

At the same time, in the aftermath of the tax bill’s passage, he has shown he won’t abandon liberal causes that are both achievable and politically helpful.

Repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military gives him an achievement that, though coveted by party liberals, reflects changing national sentiment.

And his losing fight for the so-called DREAM Act to provide a path to citizenship via college or the military for the children of illegal immigrants both appeals to the growing number of Hispanic voters and casts Republican foes as rejecting this country’s historic role as a global beacon of opportunity.

Many liberals seem afraid that the next two years will see Obama making other compromises with Republican positions. As the battles over “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the DREAM Act showed, that can happen only if enough Republicans abandon the negativism that has marked their last two years.

In either case, Obama comes out as the political winner at a time when a growing number of independents want more cooperation and less ideology.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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