President-elect Obama and his team are facing a problem confronted by most of his predecessors.
Those who voted for him in November did so for many reasons. Some voted for him simply because he’s a Democrat or because, having soured on Republicans in Washington, he isn’t a Republican.
Others voted for him because they wanted to help elect the first African-American president in our history, and still others because they found his opponent wanting.
Mr. Obama’s problem as he takes office, however, is that voters tend to identify their candidates with their own views and assume that once elected, those candidates will do what they hoped they would do when they pulled the lever on Election Day. This problem is exacerbated by the simple fact that most voters, while not simply “single-issue” voters, tend to be interested in one or a very small cluster of issues. Thus, those who supported Obama early because of his opposition to the Iraq war heard what he said on that issue early on and tuned out his later, amended statements. Likewise, voters who expected him to “go after” higher-income taxpayers with a vengeance probably didn’t pay a lot of attention to his more measured general-election campaign rhetoric.
Now voters find they’ve elected a president who has not only decided to keep George W. Bush’s Defense secretary, but one who experts are now predicting will follow a Bush-ite foreign policy. That, at least, seems to be the opinion of Foreign Policy magazine’s senior editor, Christian Brose, who concludes in a recent article, “The Making of George W. Obama,” that with Obama in the White House and in charge of U.S. foreign policy, “we’re likely to end up with a lot more of the same.” One wonders how all this sits with the boys and girls at MoveOn.org.
Most presidents face this problem, but Mr. Obama won by appearing to be more things to more different groups and people than previous presidents — and keeping things together could prove incredibly difficult.
Whether Obama can hold his troops together while leading from the center remains to be seen, but as with most new presidents, his supporters and opponents alike should give him a chance. His success will depend on how he handles external challenges on the one hand and the priority he gives ideological and partisan initiatives he supported during or before launching his campaign on the other. He is going to have to make some tough choices, and they will determine his future relations with his liberal base, his friends in Congress, and those who wish any president well although we might oppose some of what he wants to do.
That said, our new president and his advisers seem to believe that, in responding to the national economic crisis, they can act as if even the most basic laws of economics have been repealed. Folks who last year condemned George W. Bush as a spendthrift, for example, are today lining up behind a “stimulus” package that could run the debt up by as much as a trillion dollars and which, from early reports, will resemble nothing so much as a cover for traditional congressional pork-barrel spending.
After Sept. 11, 2001, virtually every major piece of legislation that came before the Congress was described as a “security” measure. Thus, support for both the USA Patriot Act and that year’s farm bill were needed, their sponsors argued, to protect us from terrorists. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Next year’s “Bridge to Nowhere” will be foisted upon us by advocates who are already arguing that building it will stimulate the economy. In fact, it appears that the new administration will eliminate congressional earmarks by rolling every half-baked request into the stimulus package.
These, however, are points worth arguing without partisan rancor and should, given the economic circumstances of the country, be at the top of both parties’ agendas without either party abandoning a serious, substantive debate. In facing an economic threat of the magnitude of today’s, it should be possible for both parties to find areas of agreement that will allow meaningful action so long as neither uses the crisis simply as an excuse to promote its own agenda.
If, however, the new administration makes an early attempt to change the rules of the game in its favor by, for example, reinstituting the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” to shut down conservative talk radio or by pushing early for “card check” legislation to eliminate the secret ballot in union elections, Mr. Obama may well please some of his most ardent backers, but the new president’s honeymoon will be short and the partisan and ideological sniping that has defined this city in recent years will return quickly, decisively, and for good reason.
It’s up to him.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.