For the past three years, the left and Obama have been indistinguishable, joined at the hip in a marriage of ideology and, where that failed, of convenience. Now the marriage is on the rocks and some see a divorce in the offing.
Obama strayed from the confrontational rhetoric of the left in his post-Tucson speech last week. While the likes of Paul Krugman and left wing bloggers were hyping the theme that Sarah Palin’s and the Tea Party activists’ rhetoric inflamed people sufficiently to bring out the worst leading — albeit indirectly — to the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The public wasn’t buying it. The Rasmussen Poll shows that — by 58-28 — voters assign the cause of the shooting to the isolated act of a madman rather than due to political rhetoric.
But most expected Obama to use the chance to ratchet up the ante and speak about how the tenor of our rhetoric catalyzed violence. In 2009 or 2010, he might have done so. But that was then and this is now. Instead he stopped short of this rhetoric, taking the high road and calling on us to promote healing in our public dialogue instead of wounding. He opted to look presidential rather than to inflict political damage on his adversaries.
Far more than his forced agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts, Obama’s speech signaled a real attempt to move to the center. If you will, to triangulate — rising to a third place between but also above both party positions. He let the left walk off a cliff by trying to extract political gain from the shooting. But he stayed away and acted like a president should.
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. And those kinds of presidents — like Bill Clinton — usually get themselves re-elected.
But it won’t be easy. The Republicans are going to confront him with challenge after challenge. To keep his centrist positioning, he is going to have to do more than give good speeches. He will have to change his programs and his policies.
The first big challenge will come next month when we reach the debt limit and need more borrowing authority. Then the Republicans in the House will insist on huge cuts in spending before approving additional borrowing. How will Obama respond? Will he let the House roll back his stimulus spending to pre-2008 levels? Probably not. Will he abandon Obamacare? Likely not. Will his move to the center succeed? Likely not. But, he just might make these kinds of concessions. And then it can succeed.