The New New Obama

David Brooks voices the exasperation many moderates feel over the latest Obama pivot.

I liked Obama's payroll tax cut ideas and urged Republicans to play along. But of course I'm a sap. When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill.

It recycles ideas that couldn't get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress. In his remarks Monday the president didn't try to win Republicans to even some parts of his measures. He repeated the populist cries that fire up liberals but are designed to enrage moderates and conservatives.

I said much the same in this FT column yesterday. Even so I'm not sure that this latest iteration is bad politics, so long as Obama sticks with it.

Despite the headline on the FT piece (which did not quite marry with the content), I argued that what Obama most needs to do is stop vacillating between being a good liberal one day and a non-partisan pragmatist the next. Yes, if I were advising him, I'd recommend consistent centrism--both on the merits (I'm a centrist, after all) and because I think that with the GOP moving right this would be clever politics. In the short term, it would also improve the chances of getting at least some additional stimulus quickly. But I'm not sure a fire-up-the-base strategy is certain to fail with voters, so long as Obama sticks with it. It's the endless iterations that have disappointed everyone and made him seem unmoored and untrustworthy.

Mark Penn disagrees. He is sure Obama is making a mistake.

What was so brilliant about the Obama 2008 election was that it brought together the upper and lower classes in a common mission of hope and change. Today, he is smashing apart that coalition with policies that seem to be about expanding the scope of government by the trillions of dollars (starting with health care) and raising taxes. Such policies will allow him to hold on to his under $35,000 support, but are anathema to the rest -- and especially the unique coalition of new professionals he forged in 2008...

The president could be out there with tax reform that promotes America's greatest asset -- the country's hard working and ever successful professionals -- and yet raises funds by closing the gap on taxes on capital. He could have tax reform that righted the balance between capital and wage income without opening up class warfare.

Yes and no. We'll see whether the "class warfare" charge sticks. What Obama is proposing on taxes is not extreme. He isn't asking to raise them right away, so the claim that he wants to put taxes up in the middle of a recession is wrong. And the Republicans' refusal ever to countenance tax increases really is extreme. Obama's reply to the "class warfare" accusation--"It's not class warfare, it's math"--is not bad. It might work. True, if you take entitlements out of consideration and confine tax increases to the richest 3%, you aren't going to solve the long-term deficit problem, but Republicans are in a weak position to drive that message home because their own proposals on long-term deficit reduction are no good either.

Actually I see the biggest danger to Obama--assuming he sticks with this latest identity for more than a few days--in the exuberant welcome that Democratic party activists have given it. On its merits, what Obama is saying now need not be that troubling to moderate opinion (especially when compared to what Republicans have said and done lately). Joyful progressives on the march, hopes and dreams renewed? It's back to 2009, and this time they mean it? That's another matter.