Matt Miller - The Archives
Obama Wants to Move the Center Left
Wall Street Journal, Feb. 24, 2009
The president's liberal critics miss the bigger picture.

President Barack Obama is taking a beating from liberal critics who think his attempt to court Republican support is a political failure and a policy disaster. Yet this assault on Mr. Obama's bipartisan instinct is misguided and, ironically, threatens to undermine liberal goals.

The president has his eye on a bigger prize than winning a few Republican votes for his stimulus package or having a conservative in his cabinet. He aims to move the political center in America to the left, much as Ronald Reagan moved it to the right. The only way he can achieve this goal is to harness the energies and values of both parties.

Left and right mean less nowadays, especially to Americans outside Washington. But broadly speaking, Mr. Obama seeks to use government in new ways to bolster opportunity and security in an era when financial crisis, global competition and rapid technological change are calling into question the political and business arrangements on which our prosperity has rested for decades. This is the task that history has assigned this president. The spat between him and his liberal critics is about the way one makes this happen.

Foes of Mr. Obama's "bipartisan" overtures believe you move the political center by crushing the opposition and then consolidating your gains; that's how we got the New Deal and the Great Society, this thinking runs. This would be a powerful argument if 2009 were anything like 1933 or 1965. But it's not. In the 1930s, with unemployment at 25%, America faced an economic meltdown far more devastating than today's. Support for bold departures was widespread. We forget, however, that even with this readiness for change, and with bigger congressional majorities than Mr. Obama enjoys, FDR was able to enact only a very modest initial version of Social Security.

Today, with trillions in economic spaghetti being thrown against the wall, enough will stick, however imperfectly, to avoid a 1930s-style calamity. Mr. Obama, thankfully, will not have the hardship FDR could mine to move his agenda. This may disappoint those quietly betting on the revolutionary motto attributed to Lenin, "the worse, the better," but those are the facts.

The 1965 comparison is also inapt. Democrats then had margins of 68-32 in the Senate and 295-140 in the House, giving LBJ a rare season of parliamentary-style power. Today's Democratic edge is much slimmer; without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the "roll them" strategy is a nonstarter.

As a practical matter, this means that Mr. Obama has to reach across the aisle. But as a matter of policy, he knows this necessity is in fact a virtue, because what America needs now is more complex than the straightforward expansion of government demanded by events in the '30s and '60s. Yes, we need a broader safety net and more public investment. But we also need radical efficiency improvements in our wasteful health-care and education sectors, and sensible ways to slow the growth of spending on the elderly.

This marriage of equity and efficiency will not naturally be advanced by Democrats alone. What's needed is a modern synthesis of the thirst for social justice with the drive for economic growth, a hybrid Mr. Obama can bring forward under the Democratic banner only by incorporating some traditional Republican values in a new, "ideologically androgynous" agenda for American capitalism.

Mr. Obama's stimulus plan, which aims first to mitigate the collapse in aggregate demand in the economy, nonetheless lays down important markers toward this agenda, even if (or perhaps because) the details didn't please partisans on either side. By marrying major new public investments with major new tax cuts, Mr. Obama is signaling that public activism and private incentives both matter profoundly. This yin-and-yang approach was strikingly on display at the bipartisan "fiscal responsibility summit," which Mr. Obama convened at the White House yesterday. Before members of Congress and other guests, the president insisted on the need to restore long-term fiscal discipline (including entitlement reform) even as the nation runs up historic deficits to battle the recession in the next few years. The president's professed reluctance to "nationalize" ailing banks—which has left space for an extraordinarily swift outside consensus to emerge (led by surprising voices like Alan Greenspan's and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's) that temporary bank takeovers may be necessary—shows similar instincts.

Yet health care offers the best example of how the challenges Mr. Obama knows we need to tackle no longer fit the old boxes. In his address to the joint session of Congress tonight and his new budget being unveiled on Thursday, Mr. Obama will call on the nation to end the shame of the 50 million uninsured (equity) even as he lays out innovative ways to control costs (efficiency). He'll say Americans finally need access to group health insurance outside the employment setting, a shift that over time will boost business competitiveness (a GOP focus) even as it assures better coverage for folks who don't get health care on the job (a Democratic cause).

To be sure, the Republican Party today is hardly a promising reform partner; its leaders seem bent only on repeating the GOP comeback of 1994. But as Mr. Obama knows, that doesn't mean that conservative economic thinking, shorn of certain discredited excesses, has nothing useful to offer. It just means Republicans are too blinded by fear and ambition right now to offer serious ideas on growth and efficiency as opposed to bogus grandstanding on "spending" and "pork." This vacuum gives Mr. Obama an opportunity to appeal to parts of the electorate that might otherwise be beyond his reach.

The president plainly feels this dialectic in his bones—witness the long, superfluous riff at his recent press conference on why conservatives need to get past their "money doesn't matter" canard on schools even as he challenged liberals to accept reforms in exchange for new investment in education. (Mr. Obama's stimulus includes $5 billion in "incentive" funds that for the first time will give the secretary of education real power to forge constructive deals on issues such as teacher tenure and compensation.) On issue after issue, Mr. Obama knows we need such new "grand bargains" that harness the market forces cherished by Republicans with the public purposes stressed by Democrats.

Seen in this light, Mr. Obama's search for a true "Third Way" isn't a stylistic choice or a cynical exercise in triangulation. Nor is it naive, except in the sense that leaders willing to make big bets to move history can be deemed dreamy by definition. Liberals who mock Mr. Obama's Republican flirtations fail to appreciate that his bipartisanship is an effort to play for bigger stakes. He's daring to link a political strategy to an attempt to actually solve America's major policy challenges.

Though it sounds like an oxymoron, "visionary centrism" is the name Mr. Obama's problem-solving pragmatism deserves, because that's what consequential presidents do—define a new political center and mobilize support for it. When the dust clears in a few years, Mr. Obama's new center will be well to the left of the old one.