Barack Obama and the New Center-Left

There was a brief period during the Presidential transition when conservatives became--well, excited isn't quite the right word, but certainly encouraged by the names associated with the new administration. From Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates to the Rubinites charged with matters economic, there seemed to be good reason to think that personnel might be policy, and Obama's administration would prove more Clintonite and centrist that most people on the Right had dared to hope.

You don't hear that theme much among conservatives nowadays. Instead, we're back to the Obama-as-radical chatter that predominated among right-wingers in the waning days of the Presidential election. As with the Ayers-mania of that unhappy period, some of this talk is miles over-the-top--for instance, the absurdist speculation about the President's "Leninist" plans to bring the U.S. economy to its knees, the better to advance the power of Leviathan. But some of it is justified: Obama is proposing the most thoroughgoing transformation of domestic policy offered by any President since Reagan, and possibly since LBJ. Which raises the question--what happened to the cautious Clintonism that Obama's appointments seemed to promise?

One answer is that Charles Krauthammer was right, months ago, when he suggested that Obama is a foreign-policy pragmatist and a domestic-policy transformationist: He "wants experts and veterans," Krauthammer wrote, "to manage and pacify universes in which he has little experience and less personal commitment" (thus the Clintonites in finance and foreign affairs), while he focuses like a laser-beam on health care summits and green-energy programs. Another answer is that Clintonism was always centrist more out of necessity than conviction, and thus the Obama Administration is offering, to some extent at least, the kind of agenda that Clinton would have offered (and did offer, in 1993 and 1994) had Nancy Pelosi, rather than Newt Gingrich, been running Congress in the Nineties.

But there's a third answer as well--which is that the smart center-left, embodied by Larry Summers as much as anyone, has moved steadily leftward over the last ten years, as part of a broader Bush-era rapprochement between the Democratic Party's moderate and liberal factions. On health care, the environment, income inequality and other fronts, figures like Summers are closer to their erstwhile lefty antagonists than they used to be, sharing common ground even when they don't have identical policy preferences. Thus the Obama team can include many of the same people who worked for Bill Clinton in 1998 or so, and still produce a more leftward-tilting policy agenda than the second-term Clinton White House--because the people in question don't have the same priorities they did a decade ago.

Neither, it's worth noting, does the country. American public opinion has moved leftward with the Clintonites, and under the influence of the same trends and events--from the mounting health-care crisis to the post-Clinton return of wage stagnation to the current financial debacle. And this is what's missing from the conservative attacks on Obama's radicalism--a recognition that the political landscape has shifted dramatically since the days when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were struggling over the American center, and that in the absence of a conservatism that's responsive to the changing situation, yesterday's radicalism can start to look a lot like today's common sense.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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