Why Have Centrists Deserted Obama?

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Obama has some big initiatives to his credit -- the fiscal stimulus, financial reform, healthcare reform. All these policies, to say nothing of his record on national security and civil liberties, have disappointed the progressive wing of the Democratic party, which sees a feckless surrender to business as usual. The strange thing is, all Obama's pandering to the center has disappointed centrists as well. If the Democrats do badly in November, the flight of independents will be the main cause. My new column for the FT looks at this puzzle. Why is the middle so disenchanted?

Because Mr Obama, though wisely failing to insist on the left's agenda, has chosen not to disown it. Unlike Bill Clinton, an instinctive centrist, Mr Obama is a progressive liberal. He wishes he could give the left what it wants. A disciplined and obstructive Republican opposition, fearful conservatives in his own party, and the mood of the country all make that, in his judgment, impossible. Mr Obama's pragmatic temperament advises patience. Do what can be done, he calculates. Come back later for more.

This was half-right. If Mr Obama had followed the advice of the party's progressive wing, he would have killed his administration's electoral prospects - and his own hopes of a second term - stone dead. But he needed to go further. Once he understood that compromise was necessary he had to repudiate the left, not apologise to it.

He should have chosen centrism unreservedly - as many voters believed he had promised during his election campaign. Then he could have championed, as opposed to meekly accepting, centrist bills that maintained the role of private insurance in healthcare and a stimulus that included big tax cuts. Instead, he stepped back, put Congress in charge, and gave the appearance of having compromise forced upon him by Republicans and conservative Democrats...

A good rule of politics: if you are going to disappoint the left, make it your enemy. Mr Obama has got the worst of both worlds. He pleads for the left's patience and understanding, certain to be rebuffed. The centre watches, also feeling betrayed, and waits for November.
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