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 Bushâ€™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 â€” and Obama understands political signals â€” that he will be conducting foreign policy from the center. …
This does not surprise us. As we have written previously, when Obamaâ€™s precise statements and position papers were examined with care, the distance between his policies and John McCainâ€™s actually was minimal. McCain tacked with the Bush administrationâ€™s position on Iraq â€” which had shifted, by the summer of this year, to withdrawal at the earliest possible moment but without a public guarantee of the date. Obamaâ€™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 Obamaâ€™s position on Iraq was profoundly at odds with the Bush administrationâ€™s. We could never clearly locate the difference. The brilliance of Obamaâ€™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. Obamaâ€™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 â€” even one from their own party â€” 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. Bushâ€™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 Obamaâ€™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 â€” or if they turn away, they will not be able to form a faction that threatens his position.
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