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Jan 24, 2010 2:35 pm

Driving From the Center

SOURCE: Toronto Globe and Mail January 21, 2010

The people of Massachusetts handed President Barack Obama a stinging political rebuke on his first anniversary in office. The descent from “Yes we can” to “No we won't” was dizzying. Mr. Obama won the Bay State last year by more than 25 percentage points in his triumphal march to his historic inauguration. A year later, Republican Scott Brown won the special Massachusetts Senate election by five points to replace the late Ted Kennedy. The message is clear: Voters, especially independent ones, believe Mr. Obama's presidency is on the wrong track.

To avoid derailment, President Obama must learn from Candidate Obama to transcend partisanship. He must reread his analysis in The Audacity of Hope that America has moved beyond 1960s-style Big Government liberalism, even as it realized it must move beyond 1980s-style Reaganism, too. In short, Mr. Obama must renew his vow to lead from the centre.

Although the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, ran a Keystone Kops campaign in Massachusetts, Mr. Obama should take her defeat personally, especially after campaigning for her on Sunday. Mr. Brown boldly made the election a referendum on Mr. Obama's leadership and Mr. Obama's health-care reform. Cries of “41” at Mr. Brown's victory party celebrated his new power as the 41st Republican senator, preventing the Democrats from blocking a Republican filibuster that could bury health care or any other major reform.

Campaign signs calling Mr. Brown “the people's candidate” captured his campaign's populism, immortalizing his greatest moment. Moderating a debate between the candidates, CNN's David Gergen asked Mr. Brown about the irony that, by sitting “in Teddy Kennedy's seat,” he might sink Mr. Kennedy's long-sought health-care reform for another 15 years. Mr. Brown's reply was one of those great political sound bites: “Well, with all due respect, it's not the Kennedys' seat, and it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat.”

Mr. Obama's big drop in Massachusetts is among independent voters – paralleling a nationwide collapse. To win them back, he must disprove the growing impression that he is a 1960s-style “tax and spend” liberal, wildly expanding the budget deficit by responding to every major problem with a big government solution. More broadly, he must liberate his presidency from the death grip of congressional Democrats.

Polls show Mr. Obama made two huge mistakes with Obamacare. First, by focusing on health-care reform before the economy revived, he seemed to be exploiting the crisis to force change, believing, as his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has said, that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Second, by deputizing Congress to draft the legislation, Mr. Obama ended up with a bill that appeared fiscally irresponsible, excessive, clunky and perverted by the kind of legislative logrolling – meaning legalized bribery – that characterizes Congress at work. Instead of hovering above the fray like the philosopher-king most Americans thought they were electing, Mr. Obama got mired in Washington's political muck, smelling like every other political hack.

Mr. Obama should learn from the great Democratic Party phoenix, Bill Clinton, who understood how to find redemption by playing to the centre, repeatedly. But, even more important, Mr. Obama must become what he once was, a human dream catcher, weaving a redemptive, inclusive narrative that wowed Americans – and the world – with a message of hope, a politics of healing, an instinct for outreach and the gift of fine phrase.

Mr. Obama first caught Americans' attention with his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, preaching a modern multicultural gospel of mutuality and idealism at the heart of American nationalism. None of that poetry was apparent when Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson secured promises of complete federal funding forever for his state's expanded Medicaid payments, while other states would only enjoy three years of full funding. Mr. Obama should reread his Audacity of Hope with its many homilies about forging consensus, crossing the aisle and governing with a spirit of bipartisanship. And he must revive the national sense of idealism and optimism with which so many Americans greeted his election.

True, Mr. Obama ended up governing amid economic distress. And true, the prose of governing is never as uplifting as the poetry of politicking. But the crisis facing America and the tone Mr. Obama set on his way into office should have reinforced a push to the centre rather than to the left.

Traditionally, U.S. presidents have found salvation in the centre – George Washington evoked America's common cause, Abraham Lincoln sang a new song of American nationalism, and Franklin Roosevelt passed one of America's most radical reforms, Social Security, with a strong bipartisan majority. To revive his presidency – and to pass a realistic health-care reform bill – Mr. Obama should remember this American tradition and solve today's crisis by being as moderate as other past presidents, thus reminding all Americans of their common commitment to a peaceful, prosperous and just future.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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Andrew D. Todd - 1/31/2010

Well, if you read the cited articles, you will see that we aren't talking union labor, or the kinds of companies which employ union labor. That kind of work mostly moved out twenty years ago. Nowadays, we are talking small businessmen. In the case of manufacturing, that worked out to living over the factory and employing people with green cards, probably at minimum wage, and with a reasonable suspicion that the green cards were forgeries, and a reasonable fear of getting raided by the INS, or whatever it's called nowadays ("La Migra"). The only American labor further down the line than that is prison labor. You are basically complaining that Americans will not work for twenty-five cents an hour.

Maarja Krusten - 1/31/2010

Mr. Marusak, it's hard to tell so early in an administration how historians will look back at it. But I think David Brooks, who is not an historian but who is very reflective and has been studying government for a long time, may have given an early indication when he wrote recently:

"David Brooks put it in his column yesterday, “In many ways, Barack Obama has lived up to his promise. He has created a thoughtful, pragmatic administration marked by a culture of honest and vigorous debate. When Obama makes a decision, you can be sure that he has heard and accounted for every opposing argument. If he senses an important viewpoint is not represented at a meeting, he will stop the proceedings and demand that it gets included.

If the evidence leads him in directions he finds uncomfortable, he will still follow the evidence. He is beholden to no ideological camp, and there is no group in his political base that he has not angered at some point in his first year.”

That Brooks himself is a Republican suggests that even pundits don't always look at these things ideologically.

James Daniel Beall - 1/31/2010

I'm not sure I follow your logic. Conservatives don't realize that during hard economic times businesses are trying to cut costs? Really? Liberals have picked up on this brand new phenomenon, but conservatives haven't? Outsourcing has been increasing by leaps and bounds for a dozen years, or so. It is not new to the recession. The reason businesses send work to China and India is because American unions have made it too costly to do business in America. Period. Unions have priced themselves out of the global market. Unions do not support conservatives, they back liberals. Hmmm, I wonder why. Without lending, nothing happens. Without credit there is no new business creation; no existing business expansion; purchasing power is stifled; therefore, no jobs are created and revenues do not increase. If revenues do not increase, then companies are forced to outsource MORE jobs. Lack of lending and exhorbitant union contracts are the reasons jobs are fleeing overseas.

James Daniel Beall - 1/31/2010

Obama is an idealogue. His goal is to get ANYTHING passed. Anything that future progressives can build on. It's known as an "entering wedge." Progressives have used this technique since the late 19th century: get your foot in the door, then build on that because then the door can never be closed. Woodrow Wilson did it with the Progressive Income Tax. He said it would only be on the rich and would never increase. It started at 6% (on the wealthy only), and within six years it was at 75% on the wealthy and 24% on everyone else. Obama knows the only thing he has to do is get his foot in the door.

Michael Davis - 1/27/2010

You're right, Barry will move to the center once he loses his majorities this Fall...that's the only way he will tack right.

Kirk Marusak - 1/25/2010

President Obama may have once been a community activist like Saul Alinsky, but Obama is not a rigid idealogue by any stretch of the imagination. He has shown a willingness to compromise on the health care bill just to get some health care legislation passed. There is no longer a health care public option for people who cannot afford health insurance. Like FDR, Obama is a pragmatist. Many liberals are disappointed that the health care bill does not contain the public option.

Social Security was radical for its time, but except for a small percentage of Americans, it has been accepted. Even many of the Tea Party activists support having social security in their old age. Before Social Security, many Ameircans had no money saved up for their retirement and ended up in the poor house.

Having health care coverage for every American citizen is not anything radical. It has been debated since the end of World War II. President Harry Truman proposed more extensive coverage by proposing national health care insurance that was optional for Americans. The insurance was a fund to be run by the federal government.

Maarja Krusten - 1/23/2010

Thanks for the thoughtful, data based comment, Andrew. With your engineering background, I can always count on you to look at facts and trends realistically.

This is a difficult time for the American people. Their world is shifting from one which felt optimistic and linear in terms of economic progress, with each generation doing better than the last, to one of uncertainty, insecurity, and generational regression economically. Politicians have painted rosy pictures for them for decades which people have lapped up. That’s very human and natural but it can get in the way of looking for solutiuons.

I think part of the problem lies in the fact that while some people understand and take responsibility for their own part in the economic changes we’re seeing, some elements of the political world haven’t caught up yet. Political sloganeering often is pitched to a mythic America that doesn’t exist and never really did. Rarely does realism enter the picture. Perhaps that has weakened us by offering crutches when we psychically needed to learn to walk on our own. But was it due to the chicken or the egg? Is the problem that voters are too addicted to feel good slogans (“shining city on the hill” and “you’re the best people in the strongest nation that ever was and together we can do great things”) which are based in some truth but in the exaggeration actually serve as psychic therapy? Or do politicians regard the people (cynically or sympathetically) as so fragile that they can’t stand too many doses of reality?

Dr. Troy writes about centrism eloquently but I don’t know how closely he follows political commentary. A number of bloggers yesterday and today have pointed to Daniel Larison’s interesting piece in The American Conservative. I’d like to see Dr. Troy address the point Larison makes about citizens’ need for “therapy” and its role in exaggeration on both ends of the political spectrum. That plays a part in whether centrism and bipartisanship even are possible. (How can you deprive people of “therapy,” the need for which points to things people are unlikely to give up readily, and bring conversations to a more realistic political level?) This is an area where historians can help, by providing factual information and a long term, historical perspective. See “All of This Has Happened Before,” at

Andrew D. Todd - 1/23/2010

The self-proclaimed conservatives don't seem to read Business Week. Businesses have come to the conclusion that the way to make themselves profitable again is to accelerate outsourcing and offshoring, to make their costs fall faster than their revenues. Even Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway is doing it, even at the same time that he stretched himself in buying a railroad. Unemployment is not merely due to the business cycle; it is not something that will automatically rebound without government intervention.

What it comes down to is that outsourcing and offshoring is going retail. The sum and total of the items cited below is that even the smallest firms are downsizing, offshoring, etc. The new business is a self-employed entrepreneur who works out of his apartment, but has the connections to get things manufactured in China, and to get his paperwork done in India, and who jobs out specialized jobs to other self-employed entrepreneurs. There are people more or less like independent real estate salesmen, who are in the business of making China or India connections for small businessmen. In a radically downsized company, career tracks for anyone except the owner are de minimus, and most of the American employees (if any) are likely to be twenty-something-aged salespeople.

John Tozzi , Small Employers Struggle to Offer Health Insurance Faced with skyrocketing premiums, only 43% of small businesses still offer health coverage, compared with 96% of companies with at least 50 employees
Scott Shane, Beware the Freelance Economy As employer businesses decline, non-employer firms are on the rise. The problem is most won't create jobs or meaningful wealth, says Scott Shane
Why Brooklyn Industries Manufactures in China: Founders Lexy Funk and Vahap Avsar were better at retailing than manufacturing. So they researched and tested Chinese plants and decided to outsource

Richard Williams - 1/21/2010

It's a little late for Obama and Alinsky to "get religion" on governing. Obama is an ultra-radical leftist and any "move to the center" will only be to fool voters so he might accomplish his radical agenda some other way.

"Franklin Roosevelt passed one of America's most radical reforms, Social Security"

Which is bankrupt and actuarially unsustainable.