25 Nov 2008

Obama: First Moves

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Stratfor’s George Friedman notes Obama’s moves toward the center, admires the duplicity with with Obama campaigned, and argues that Obama is safe moving toward the right in hope of building a larger coalition of support, because, after all, his radical leftist base has nowhere else to go.

I would say that Friedman is right, but only up to a very limited point and for only a very limited period of time. It doesn’t matter that the radical leftwing base has nowhere else to go. If Obama seriously disappoints them, if they conclude that he isn’t really on their side, if they decide that he has betrayed some crucial ideological test or shibboleth, they will turn on him in exactly the way the left turned on Lyndon Johnson.

Over the past two weeks, Obama has begun to reveal his appointments. It will be Hillary Clinton at State and Timothy Geithner at Treasury. According to persistent rumors, current Defense Secretary Robert Gates might be asked to stay on. The national security adviser has not been announced, but rumors have the post going to former Clinton administration appointees or to former military people. Interestingly and revealingly, it was made very public that Obama has met with Brent Scowcroft to discuss foreign policy. Scowcroft was national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, and while a critic of the younger Bush’s policies in Iraq from the beginning, he is very much part of the foreign policy establishment and on the non-neoconservative right. That Obama met with Scowcroft, and that this was deliberately publicized, is a signal — and Obama understands political signals — that he will be conducting foreign policy from the center. …

This does not surprise us. As we have written previously, when Obama’s precise statements and position papers were examined with care, the distance between his policies and John McCain’s actually was minimal. McCain tacked with the Bush administration’s position on Iraq — which had shifted, by the summer of this year, to withdrawal at the earliest possible moment but without a public guarantee of the date. Obama’s position was a complete withdrawal by the summer of 2010, with the proviso that unexpected changes in the situation on the ground could make that date flexible.

Obama supporters believed that Obama’s position on Iraq was profoundly at odds with the Bush administration’s. We could never clearly locate the difference. The brilliance of Obama’s presidential campaign was that he convinced his hard-core supporters that he intended to make a radical shift in policies across the board, without ever specifying what policies he was planning to shift, and never locking out the possibility of a flexible interpretation of his commitments. His supporters heard what they wanted to hear while a careful reading of the language, written and spoken, gave Obama extensive room for maneuver. Obama’s campaign was a master class on mobilizing support in an election without locking oneself into specific policies. …

Presidents are not as powerful as they are often imagined to be. Apart from institutional constraints, presidents must constantly deal with public opinion. Congress is watching the polls, as all of the representatives and a third of the senators will be running for re-election in two years. No matter how many Democrats are in Congress, their first loyalty is to their own careers, and collapsing public opinion polls for a Democratic president can destroy them. Knowing this, they have a strong incentive to oppose an unpopular president — even one from their own party — or they might be replaced with others who will oppose him. If Obama wants to be powerful, he must keep Congress on his side, and that means he must keep his numbers up. He is undoubtedly getting the honeymoon bounce now. He needs to hold that.

Obama appears to understand this problem clearly. It would take a very small shift in public opinion polls after the election to put him on the defensive, and any substantial mistakes could sink his approval rating into the low 40s. George W. Bush’s basic political mistake in 2004 was not understanding how thin his margin was. He took his election as vindication of his Iraq policy, without understanding how rapidly his mandate could transform itself in a profound reversal of public opinion. Having very little margin in his public opinion polls, Bush doubled down on his Iraq policy. When that failed to pay off, he ended up with a failed presidency.

Bush was not expecting that to happen, and Obama does not expect it for himself. Obama, however, has drawn the obvious conclusion that what he expects and what might happen are two different things. Therefore, unlike Bush, he appears to be trying to expand his approval ratings as his first priority, in order to give himself room for maneuver later. Everything we see in his first two weeks of shaping his presidency seems to be designed two do two things: increase his standing in the Democratic Party, and try to bring some of those who voted against him into his coalition.

In looking at Obama’s supporters, we can divide them into two blocs. The first and largest comprises those who were won over by his persona; they supported Obama because of who he was, rather than because of any particular policy position or because of his ideology in anything more than a general sense. There was then a smaller group of supporters who backed Obama for ideological reasons, built around specific policies they believed he advocated. Obama seems to think, reasonably in our view, that the first group will remain faithful for an extended period of time so long as he maintains the aura he cultivated during his campaign, regardless of his early policy moves. The second group, as is usually the case with the ideological/policy faction in a party, will stay with Obama because they have nowhere else to go — or if they turn away, they will not be able to form a faction that threatens his position.

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2 Feedbacks on "Obama: First Moves"

Dai Alanye

Obama made it thru the election due to the wishful thinking of the voters, and now even the self-proclaimed realists are thinking wishfully that his policies will be “pragmatic (for which, read “opportunistic”) and that he will govern from the middle.

We know from observing his campaign that he will say anything to get his way, but having achieved his dream of high office I expect more than a little of his base ideology to show, especially when it comes to applying a sort of European worldview. After all, consulting with Brent Scowcroft hardly signals an aggressive foreign policy.


The Left may have nowhere else to go, but the President-elect may find himself sandwiched between two unmoveable and incompatible ideologies, supported by a thin median strip of centrists. And with the economy falling down around him before he even moves in to the White House. (Which has a special kind of delicious irony, given his community organizer history with banks and agitation for home mortgages for those incapable of repaying them, and the Democratic smokescreens for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the past decade.)

There is a special place in Hell reserved for mugwumps and fencesitters.

There are worse things than getting clobbered in the public opinion polls and insuring no second term. Sometimes the right policy is not the popular policy … the last few years of the Iraq War have shown that.

Of course, the same can be said for the wrong policy.. The trick is to know the difference. The Left is riddled with fallacious theories and paradyms, and I doubt Obama is going to have the intellectual honesty to bail, given he leveraged his election on so many of them.


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