Magazine article USA TODAY

Politics of the Center

Magazine article USA TODAY

Politics of the Center

Article excerpt

PRES. BARACK OBAMA came to office with the expectation that the financial meltdown would provide the political setting for massive reform--that it would do what the Great Depression did for Franklin Roosevelt's passage of the New Deal. The President misread the public mood. Despite the economic downturn, the country is not receptive to big government reforms. Former Clinton Secretary of Commerce William Daley, a product of the Chicago Machine, has told Obama that he should "move toward the center." This is good advice. According the Pew Research Center, "Centrism has emerged as a dominant factor in public opinion ... and an increasing number of Americans identify as Independents." In fact, almost 40% of Americans say they are Independents and, are, in general, no fans of big government.

What are the politics of the center, and how can Obama appeal to these Independents? In making expedient compromises on the health care issue, Obama only angered both sides. He supported expanding subsidized health care coverage, while leaving the system in the hands of insurance companies. The Progressive Caucus in the House was angry at the exclusion of the public option, while conservatives still saw the long arm of government regulation.

Effective presidential practitioners of centrist politics must find the center of gravity in American politics, where the Independent voters are. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Pres. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, found that center, built on the idea that the U.S. must be a permanent and central member of the international community. In developing support for this far-reaching in the U.S.'s approach to the world, Roosevelt and Truman realized that they could not be partisan reformers in domestic policy and bipartisan leaders in foreign policy. In the years prior to World War II, Roosevelt jettisoned much of his reform agenda in order to construct a broad bipartisan coalition to support the British against Adolf Hitler's Germany with the Lend-Lease Bill. Truman put his reform agenda aside in 1947-48 in order to work closely with the Republican-controlled 80th Congress. Consequently, that Congress passed the Truman Doctrine (aid to Greece and Turkey), the Marshall Plan, and supported the concept of a NATO treaty. In both cases, Roosevelt and Truman left only the weakened isolationists outside this coalition of the center.

Pres. Dwight Eisenhower continued Roosevelt and Truman's internationalism and, in addition, built a domestic policy consensus. He understood that the public had come to accept a modest welfare state and the value of corporate capitalism. Eisenhower made no effort to repeal the New Deal reforms and even added the ambitious Interstate Highway System. At the same time, he lowered taxes and produced two balanced budgets. In those years, bipartisanship was easier since there were liberals and conservatives in both parties. Today, the Democrats harbor few conservatives and Republican liberals are a dying breed. Thus, finding the center will be difficult challenge for Obama, but not an impossible one. As was the case with Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, he must find those broad questions upon which a vast majority of U.S. citizens agree. They are not hard to articulate: Americans want to be protected from terrorists and see their prosperity continued. …

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