Obama and the Republicans

Panelists on one of Politico's web pages (Politico/Arena), were asked recently to answer this question: "Has President Obama moved to the right?"  It was a good question, but as I recall I didn't submit a response (I was traveling at the time, but my real excuse was that I didn't quite know how to answer: who decides these days which policies fit into which boxes?).

A review was in order: what are the issues dominating the political agenda and who stands where?

First, there was, and is, the recession. I, too, read the statistical indicators but I have my own measuring stick as well: in Washington, where I work, one can walk for half an hour down one of the city's premier streets, Connecticut Avenue, from, say, Cleveland Park to DuPont Circle, and count the businesses that have bitten the dust, restaurants, grocery stores, cut-rate barber shops, magazine and newspaper sellers.   And this in a city that may be the nation's most recession-proof because it is home to the one industry that never stops growing, the federal government.

To deal with this very real national crisis, the Republican administration of George W. Bush first sent to Capitol Hill an insultingly vague plan to shower private companies with piles of money taken from taxpayers.  The Republican plan provided for virtually no accountability and no protection for the citizens whose money would be funneled into Wall Street bank accounts.   Some Republicans were outspoken in opposition to the plan (those who supported it were idiots) and the administration was forced to revamp its strategies.

Fast forward to the Obama administration.  Same problem.  Same general solution - send federal cash to prevent "too big to fail" institutions from crashing.  Yes, "too big to fail" is a ridiculous concept that has nothing to do with, and is antithetical to, the free enterprise system that liberals love to bash, but given the general rush to put a lid on the rapidly boiling crisis, the Obama rescue team was far more in line with conservative values than the Bush administration.  Yes, Obama said, we'll shore up the banks and the financial paper-swappers, we'll try to help the auto companies, etc., but we'll watch what they're doing, they'll have to pay it all back, and if the taxpayers are going to foot the bill, they'll be part-owners, and like other stockholders, they'll exercise their rights to keep things on track.  The Bush Administration's first response was to turn the taxpayers into suckers; Obama said, in effect, "we're not giving away taxpayers' money; they'll make a loan in exchange for an ownership interest."  Of the two approaches, which was the more conservative position?  Obama's, clearly.

Keep in mind that for conservatives, and Republicans generally, having the federal government intrude into the world of business is pretty much a non-starter.  The point is not that either what Bush did or what Obama has done will warm a Republican heart, but that between the two, Obama's bottom line was closer to a GOP perspective than that of his supposedly conservative predecessor.

Health care.  Putting aside the nonsense of the occasional nutcase like Alan Grayson who claims Republicans want sick people to die quickly (who said the vitriol all comes from Rush Limbaugh?), most sentient Americans, regardless of party, understand that too many citizens can't get health care, or can't afford it, or run into insurance companies who want profit without risk.  Most members of Congress are prepared to do something about it.  Crisis breeds opportunity, however, and there are in Congress a number of liberals who have long dreamed of creating a national health insurance program like the ones common in Europe; Americans have rejected such plans for nearly a century but now, with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, they saw their chance.  And again ran into significant opposition.  Even in the House, the farther left of the two legislative bodies, the most ambitious liberal plans quickly came to naught.

Although a European-style national health insurance program was a non-starter, the liberal fallback position (conservatives thought of it as getting a foot in the door) was to create a "public option" to compete with private insurance companies.  What was Barack Obama's position on the public option?  Essentially it was a yawn.  What he said, more or less, was: "I'm not all that excited about it myself."  That killed it.  And then came the Stupak amendment in the House, followed by Ben Nelson's line in the sand in the Senate, designed to ensure that none of the federal funds used for health care would pay for abortions.  Where was Obama on this one?  More of the same, basically telling liberals: "hey, guys, let it go."   Thus, the Obama administration ended up actively supporting a bill that does not create a government health-care program, does not expand access to Medicare, and does not allow federal funds to pay for abortions.  Moveon.org and Howard Dean issued appeals for the legislation to be defeated.   Was Barack Obama's position closer to his allies on the Left or his opponents on the Right?  Ask Howard Dean.

Again, there will be no Republican rejoicing over a government mandate that citizens buy a product or pay a tax (fine, tax, all the same).  It may, in fact, be unconstitutional to impose such a requirement, and the courts may so determine.  Once more the question is not whether Obama has become a right-winger but whether he has, when push comes to shove, come slightly closer to meeting GOP concerns than to pleasing his allies on the left.  My friend Marty Linsky, a leadership expert with whom I taught at Harvard, tells politicians that true leadership often requires being able to disappoint one's followers at a rate they can absorb.   Right now, while conservatives continue to resist the many iterations of Obamanomics, and believe his policies will prove politically disastrous to Democrats in Congress, it is Obama's supporters, not his opponents, who are being forced to decide how well they can absorb disappointment.

Afghanistan.  The Left called for withdrawal (as a personal note, so did I; so did George Will).   Most Republicans, on the other hand, led by John McCain, wanted a greater commitment to the war and an increase in the number of American troops in the field.  Obama sided with the Republicans.  And although Republicans criticized him for "setting a deadline for withdrawal", the Administration has made it clear, repeatedly and from various high-level sources, that there will be no withdrawal until American goals are met.

No, Barack Obama is no conservative, far from it.  Obama's Republican opponents still prefer policies quite different from those he supports.  But on issue after issue, when one draws a line between where MoveOn wants him to go and the more conservative political views of the GOP, this President is tilting considerably more to the Republican point of view than his most fervent admirers had ever anticipated.