The Trouble with Barack

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, February 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Barack


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

Obama is accused of being too radical, but he's been governing from the middle for a year. So why all the anger? Because he's leading with his head, not his heart.

First, a bit of personal history. I am a Southerner, a churchgoer, and a swing voter in presidential elections. I believe America is a center-right nation. I am at work on a biography of George H.W. Bush. I pay plenty of taxes already, thanks, and I have no automatic faith in government's capacity to solve problems. I share these details to make clear that I am not a reflexive lefty. Far from it.

That said, I hope President Obama does not take the conventional message from the Democrats' drubbing in Massachusetts (where they lost a Senate seat they'd held since 1952, the year John Kennedy beat Henry Cabot Lodge): go to the center, Mr. President. Turn right before it is too late--or, at the very least, stop trying to do so much. Even my friend David Brooks of The New York Times--a columnist whom Obama reads very closely--believes the president tried to change the equation of American life in favor of too much government, too radically and too quickly.

To me, however, the evidence fails to support the contention that the Barack Obama who governed from Jan. 20, 2009, to Jan. 20, 2010--the day after Scott Brown's defeat of Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race--was a Chicago Che or even an unreconstructed Great Society liberal. Obama is essentially a centrist. His world view cannot be easily consigned to the familiar categories of left and right. In fact, those categories have been obsolescent since George W. Bush effectively nationalized the banks and Obama won the nomination on a center-right cultural platform. No matter how simplistic competing cable networks try to make things, when you have a Republican president behaving like a European socialist and a Democratic president who opposes gay marriage and has added troops to Afghanistan, you are living in a volatile ideological age.

And yet many Americans--or at least many politically engaged Americans, who are the ones who count most in such matters--appear to think Obama has been a revolutionary who is only now learning his lesson. In an interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC News, Sen. Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat, said, "There's going to be a tendency on the part of our people to be in denial about all this -- If you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up." Bayh continued, "The only way we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates. Whenever you have just the furthest-left elements of the Democratic Party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country, that's not going to work too well." It is a neat and familiar storyline. But that does not make it accurate.

Yes, the deficit is too great, our debt is too deep, unemployment is too high, and the health-care debate has been confusing and counterproductive. And yes, the stimulus bill added to that deficit--but a great deal of the package cut taxes, and even conservative economists agree it has helped (and many liberals think it was too small, so there is a big damned-if-you-do element at work here).

A few counterintuitive points: Obama was not about to socialize American medicine. The president's health-care plan was to the right of where Richard Nixon was on the issue more than 35 years ago. The bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit automakers either began under the previous administration or seemed essential to averting greater economic calamity. (A tough sell, these preventive wars. "It's always hard in politics to make the case that things would have been worse if this or that had not happened," Obama counselor David Axelrod told me last week.) On taxes and discretionary spending, the president has been to the right of center. …

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