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Political Animal

The Two Obamas

Calling a politician two-faced is sort of like calling the sky blue—it’s such an obvious taunt that it’s almost uninsulting. No politician can be all things to all people, even his or her die-hard voters, so in some ways it’s not exactly a surprise to point out that, to many people, there seem to be two Barack Obamas.

Each new president who comes sweeping in on a program of change has to deal with the trade-off between campaigning and governing. Campaigns are fueled by grand exhortations of earnestness, hope, and idealism, and then they run headlong into the giant brick wall that is governing. Young campaign staffers arrived fresh-faced in Washington only to be shouldered out of the way by the seasoned staffers of government, sometimes wearing buttons that read good job, kid. . . now get lost.

Candidate Obama ran on hope. President Obama runs on pragmatism. Those who have expected more of the former have descended to cynicism upon seeing the latter.

What hasn’t helped is the ground on which President Obama has chosen to fight. We have undergone 30 years of Reaganism now, long enough for us to have seen the effects: a wholesale shift of the tax burden to the middle class and poor, and the mass accumulation of wealth in the hands of the rich; the long, slow deterioration of the nation’s physical plant, with bridges and runways and highways crumbling; and now the concerted effort at both the state and national level to undo both Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

But in every negotiation with his GOP opponents of late, Obama has begun by ceding ground. There has never, not from day one, been a full-throated defense of the America that gave us collective bargaining and the 40-hour work week, that gave us weekends and Social Security and Medicare and Family and Medical Leave, that did away with the horrors of child labor, that built public schools that were once the envy of the world—many things at which the current Republicans have been busy trying to chip away. The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson has drolly noted that today’s Republicans want to repeal the 20th century.

Then there are also the unfortunate differences between Sen. Obama and President Obama. Back in 2006, then-Sen. Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling as a simple political statement, something he now concedes wasn’t perhaps in the best interests of the country. But now President Obama, who realizes this, is in the uncomfortable position of not only having to make the argument against doing what he did then, but facing an opposition demanding concessions using the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip—and he’s the one who opened the door to letting them do it.

The hardest thing for Obama’s supporters to accept is his negotiating style, which seems to give away as much as it gains. When his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton moved strongly to the center before his 1996 re-election, pundits called it “triangulating,” as he attempted to co-opt the large mass of centrist votes. Nowadays, however, the center of mass on the right has pushed even more sharply in a conservative direction, yet it seemed up until recently there was no edge at which Obama would stop, no place to draw the line.

But the past week may have changed things. The release of Republican Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint—a plan that would essentially end Medicare and Medicaid, gutting a massive amount of the social safety net for seniors that has existed for almost a half-century—may have shown us Obama’s Maginot Line.

In a talk with supporters in his hometown of Chicago last week, the president was caught on an open microphone expressing candor about the Ryan plan that he has never shown to the rest of the voters hoping for a little backbone. “When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, he’s just being America’s accountant . . . This is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill—but wasn’t paid for.”

And regarding the closed-door negotiations that kept the government from shutting down, the president held the line on GOP attempts to gut his signature health care law via backdoor means: “I said, ‘You want to repeal health care? Go at it. We’ll have that debate. You’re not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we’re stupid?’”

Right now we’re coming near the end of “governing time” and arriving at the long, slow start of “campaigning time.” If Candidate Obama wants to fire up the troops between now and the start of next year’s election season, showing his supporters more of the “backroom Obama” might be a good start.

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