President Zigzag

Before the U.S. airstrikes in Libya, President Obama was roundly criticized for not doing anything concrete to stop Qaddafi's war against his own people beyond saying "Qaddafi must go." Now that bombs have fallen, the president is being criticized for having done too much.

This is far from the first time Obama, through a seeming reversal in policy course, has managed to anger both sides of the political aisle without necessarily gaining the middle. How does Obama manage to keep upsetting his base and his opposition at the same time?

Clive Crook's answer after the midterms:

Obama cannot be guilty of both overreaching and underreaching, but he can be at fault for arousing those contradictory impressions in different segments of the electorate. [...] Again and again, he staked out a position to the left of the one he eventually settled for. The staking-out alarmed the center and right; the settling-for-less disappointed the left; and, crucially, the mostly defensible positions he eventually retreated to lacked a champion. Instead of infuriating one extreme or the other, which was unavoidable, he infuriated both, all the while failing to talk to the middle.

Libya is just the most recent instance since he took office in which Obama started out on the left and wound up on the right. Three major decisions make the pattern plain:

Gitmo. The day after taking office, Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay by the end of 2009. The Bush administration also wanted to close Gitmo, but both administrations were confronted with the problem of where to put the prisoners. Once Congress fought back against Obama's proposal to bring detainees stateside, Obama let Gitmo stay open.

The Public Option. While he fought Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama repeatedly supported government-sponsored insurance, which probably made it easier for Democrats to support him because he didn't support an individual mandate. Again, Congress pushed back in 2009 and Obama folded the public option so he could move ahead on health care reform.

The Bush Tax Cuts. Letting the tax cuts for the rich expire in 2010 was the central economic plank of Obama's 2008 campaign, at least before the financial crisis struck. The president's first budget planned on those tax hikes to pay for new spending on health care, energy, and education. Fast forward one year and the administration was fighting Democrats and siding with Republicans to extend the cuts.

It's unclear what political damage was done by these zigzags, including the latest, on Libya. But they can't help but contribute to a sense that people don't know who Obama really is, even all these years after he was introduced to the nation.

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.

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