The president may not have clowns to his left and jokers to his right — but he is in the middle. And what that means for his legacy has yet to be determined.
If you hear a dragging noise, it's the sound of President Barack Obama moving the White House to the country's middle. The other sounds you may be hearing are expressions of anger and dismay from the Republican right (which considers Obama far left no matter what) and from the Democratic left (which feels Obama has caved time and time again to an intransigent GOP).
With detractors on both sides, Obama is, for better or worse, now positioned in the political center on an array of domestic and foreign issues. On issue after issue — gun control, the Keystone oil pipeline, immigration reform, Social Security and Medicare, and more — any sober assessment puts Obama in the center. He has been moving there for years, most notably starting in his 2011 State of the Union address.
The real question isn't if Obama is in the middle — it's whether owning the center can translate into actual victories in Congress — and whether Obama's political style is effective in a polarized Congress.
Moving to the middle assumes cooperation from the other side. If you're in the middle, you need someone to meet you there. But such cooperation is something that's sorely lacking in an era in which bomb-throwing talkers like Rush Limbaugh can mobilize Republicans listeners to keep members of Congress in hyper-partisan lockstep.
By most accounts, Obama is neither loved nor feared on Capitol Hill. And he's not exactly using his e-power to help. Although his winning 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were bolstered by masterful use of the internet and social media, as NBC's Chuck Todd notes, Obama "hates... the rise of the internet and social media...he thinks this sort of political media has hurt the political discourse." So he barely uses it to achieve his legislative aims.
And he has bungled some issues. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd wrote: "How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn't know how to work the system."
Obama was hired because he was the anti-politician. He wasn't of Washington and he wasn't really of politics. So it should come as no surprise that he couldn't suddenly master the art of politics.... Why is it so hard to imagine the electorate embracing a candidate today who had the talents that would have been required to pass the gun bill? Because such a candidate would have a long legislative record full of compromises and backroom deals where he or she learned how to break through gridlock and get things done. [Slate]
When Obama was first elected in 2008 there was much speculation over whether he'd be "another Reagan" — a transformational leader and great communicator — or "another Carter," someone who could say all the right words in speeches but be inept in the end. He has proven to be neither (yet). This president is his own man. Most likely, a future president will be called "another Obama."
But the jury is still out on precisely what "another Obama" will mean. In the meantime, it's definitely Obama in the middle.
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