Obama's Lonely Middle Ground

The president and Congress just haven't gotten along. In tonight's speech, he'll face a tough political calculus yet again.

Obama speaking to Congress - Brendan Smialowski Getty - banner.jpg

For two and a half years, President Obama has walked a narrow lane, like one of the bike strips that Mike Bloomberg (more technocratic, but of a like mind) paved in the middle of Manhattan streets. Obama aimed at the reasonable middle but found it very lonely: Washington's reasonable columnists and sympathetic centrists might get what he's doing, but to everyone else who wants him to succeed--still a majority of the country--he can seem stubborn and even impotent.

This is surprising given that Obama is the first president since John F. Kennedy to have been drawn from the Senate. It is not surprising given that Republicans are not only obstructionist when out of power--none of them voted for Bill Clinton's tax hikes either--but have taken a fencing match and turned it into a gun battle, twice bringing the government perilously close to the brink. This leaves any reasonable man looking lonelier by the day.

Which brings us to tonight's speech.

The mix of tax cuts, infrastructure increases, employment incentives, and spending increases contained in the $300 billion package the president will reveal before Congress is far milder than the sweeping policies that Obama's economic advisers believe are needed to convince businesses to hire and consumers to spend. Indeed, it's a document that seems resigned to being reasonable. Most of the proposals, save an extension of unemployment benefits, were at one point associated with mainstream Republicans. That's the point.

The White House line is this: If Republicans oppose this package, they're opposing proposals they've supported. And if they refuse to compromise with the president, they're basically denying the existence of the jobs crisis itself. They'll look totally unreasonable. And Obama will look like the adult. This is a refrain we've heard before.

The White House is convinced that the president will always seem like a reasonable middle ground between extremes, and that his priestly presiding over Washington's bickering will eventually be rewarded. But it hasn't yet. What objective evidence exists to convince Americans that anyone deserves to be rewarded?

Obama is addressing Congress tonight because his signature legislation didn't work the way he said it would. The stimulus didn't appreciably lower unemployment, and health care reform didn't ease anxieties. Both may have kept things from being worse, but they didn't do much else.

"Voters do give the president credit for being reasonable," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "They would just rather be giving him credit for making the economy better."

That's hard to do when the president and the speaker of the House do not like or trust each other. And it's especially difficult when the opposition Republican Party has based its organizing philosophy around a determination to completely discredit government at every turn. Getting things done--anything--means that government is doing something. And that's bad. So the worst thing that can happen is for anything associated with the president to pass cleanly, or even at all. If you're a Republican member of Congress, there is no real incentive to compromise.

The GOP has created a political feedback loop that is calculated to destroy President Obama's credibility as a change agent. They've figured out that when government is gridlocked and sclerotic, even silly and absurd, no one in Washington comes out smelling like a rose. No one seems reasonable, because nothing gets done. The reasonable man just looks weak.

A Washington Post poll in August found that 78 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the country's political system is working, and almost as many have little or no confidence that Washington can solve the country's economic problems.

So what's Obama to do? When it comes to Congress, the answer is: not much. If he decides to change course and do the Full Paul Krugman--propose a huge new government-spending plan, a trillion-dollar stimulus--Keith Olbermann might be happy for a day, but that's about it.

If he turns ruthless on Republicans, he risks losing his role as the voice of reason, a role he is trying so hard to build in the hopes it will pay off when there's a Republican nominee to draw a contrast with.

The jobs speech may well be the last event of political significance that the president participates in from Washington, aside from his State of the Union address in January. His travel schedule will ramp up dramatically after the United Nations General Assembly closes in late September, and he'll set a campaign pace that will punish even the hardiest of Secret Service agents. If Dodge ain't working for you, you get out. So look to the president to take his case to the people that the reasonable man deserves a second term.

Image credit: Brendan Smialowski/Getty