Saying, “I didn’t get reelected to bask in reelection. I got elected to do work,” President Obama on Wednesday set out his stall for the first months of his second term.
But he gave no clear hint about whether he would tack to the left or to the center now that he has run his last election campaign.
On all the biggest issues of the day, he suggested that there was a path to bipartisan agreement, but he simultaneously framed each topic so as to showcase his commitment to Democratic priorities: upping tax rates on those earning more than $250,000 a year, providing “a pathway for legal status” for illegal immigrants and doing more to reduce carbon emissions.
The White House news conference, therefore, did nothing to resolve one of the central debates that has always swirled around him.
Is he a committed liberal who had to trim his sails because the 2012 election loomed? Or is he in fact a centrist uncomfortable with what his erstwhile spokesman Robert Gibbs once derided as “the professional left”?
In general, it has been those on the right who have seen him as a radical, and those on the left who have been suspicious of the accommodationist tendencies they claim to discern.
The divergence was often apparent in the way particular issues were viewed. Conservatives, united in their distaste for the Affordable Care Act, insisted that it represented a massive governmental overreach. But there were plenty of people on the left who believed it did not go far enough toward a single-payer system.
Some of Obama’s closest backers insist that it is too crude to see him as a liberal or centrist, per se.
A former senior administration official said Obama shouldn’t be labeled under either category.
“I don’t think he would characterize himself in either way,” the former official said. “I think he would say that the American people sent him to deal with big problems and you can call him whatever you want but he’s more concerned with addressing these big issues.”
The official added the argument that Obama was “pretty pragmatic” in his first term.
“Ask liberals what they thought and ask conservatives and everyone will have their own axes to grind,” the official said. “When you have both sides saying that, I’d argue he’s being pragmatic.”
Several outside observers amplified this point. Princeton Professor Julian Zelizer asserted that Obama subscribes to the standard Democratic view on most big issues, but knows that he needs to accept some give-and-take as the price of getting things done.
“He is a pragmatic liberal. I think he always has been, and he has governed in that way. He subscribes, for the most part, to the liberalism that defines the Democratic Party: He believes in a role for government; he believes markets cannot be left alone. But he understands that compromises are essential in a country that has so much red on the map.”
Zelizer also suggested that Obama feels a frustration with the left of his own party. He suggested that this was only partly because the president feels the goals of the left are unachievable. In addition, “I am not sure that he agrees with them” on principle, Zelizer said.
He cited both healthcare reform and financial regulation as instances where Obama enacted change but did not attempt the fundamental alteration of the landscape that some progressives desired.
On the fiscal cliff, Zelizer added, “I don’t think he agrees with Paul Krugman that the deficit is not a central issue. He disagrees with Republicans as to how to reduce it, but he doesn’t question that it is important.”
Outside voices on the right and left put a different shading on Obama’s approach.
Charles Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and the author of I Am the Change: Barack ObamaBarack ObamaOvernight Energy: Greens sue Trump over Keystone XL | House passes EPA science bill Liberals don't understand difference between news and opinion AP poll: Nearly 60 percent disapprove of Trump MORE and the Crisis of Liberalism, argued that the president was pragmatic only insofar as working out how best to pursue liberal objectives.
This brand of pragmatism, Kesler argued, should not be confused with ideological moderation.
“His pragmatism is real, but it is a means to liberal ends or to progressive ends. It doesn’t take the place of his ideological commitments,” Kesler said.
Kesler added that Obama was willing to “cut side deals” in pursuit of healthcare reform but said “in that case, he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve ends that he thought were necessary for social justice.”
Another former administration official said Obama will want to get things done in a second term and while he will stand firm on certain issues such as taxes, he will be open to compromise.
“More than anything, he wants to get things done; that much is obvious,” the official said. “So I can’t see him tilting all the way left. He’s got to be willing to extend a hand to make things work.”
Grant Farred, a professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University, expressed some criticism of Obama from the left, asserting that the correct way to view the president was as “a radical opportunist.”
He cited the president’s recent announcement of his support for same-sex marriage as an example.
“He was dragged into this by Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to Trump: 'Grow up' and 'stop tweeting' Paul Ryan sells out conservatives with healthcare surrender Senate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral MORE. Thank God Joe Biden spoke without a couple of synapses firing, because basically Biden has forced him into that position.”
Farred argued that, with regard to the president’s second term, “the best hope for change is that Obama follows the electorate, that he will be dragged without too much kicking and screaming.”
Zelizer, meanwhile, asserted that Obama would have to compromise, beginning with the fiscal cliff. But, he cautioned, he would get little thanks for his efforts from either flank.
“There is going to be a lot of pressure on him to move on spending cuts,” he said. “He is going to have to do it to get some kind of deal. A lot of liberals have been nervous about that for a while.
“But on taxes, he will likely push for enough for the right to hate him. He will compromise, and it won’t make him an any less controversial figure.”