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With Friends Like These

The left quadrant of Obama’s base wants to stay relevant by staying angry. And the right doesn’t have anything to do but get angry. So who’s his biggest problem?

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

Everybody loves Barack Obama. Or at least that’s how it seemed for a brief shining moment early last week, when the new president faced the heaving, teary, rapturous, incomprehensibly vast crowd that had gathered on the National Mall to celebrate his ascension and what it said about their country. Obama mounted the steps of the Capitol not merely with the wind at his back but surfing a tidal wave of goodwill: an astonishing 83 percent approval rating for the handling of his transition. His inaugural address—not his most electrifying effort, but bracingly clear-eyed and resolute and galvanizing—won raves across the spectrum, from George Will and Pat Buchanan on TV to the assemblage in Manhattan’s Symphony Space that (playing gloriously to type) burst into cheers at his mention of “non-believers.”

Amid the all-consuming Obamaphoria, it was easy to forget that 58 million voters on Election Day pulled the lever for John McCain. (Who he?) But then you noticed the teeny-tiny signs that not absolutely everyone was in full swoon. Here was Texas senator John Cornyn, first forcing a 24-hour delay of Hillary Clinton’s confirmation and then a weeklong postponement of Eric Holder’s. And there was Rush Limbaugh, announcing that he was rooting for Obama’s failure. Here was Nancy Pelosi, proclaiming that George W. Bush’s tax cuts should be repealed long before their scheduled expiration in 2010—contrary to Obama’s leanings. And there was Rachel Maddow (among others), declaring herself still “enraged” at the Obamans for including Rick Warren in the inauguration.

These are all minor perturbations, you might say, and you’d get no argument from me. But they’re also signs of real fissures and may presage real fights that Obama will have to cope with as he seeks to rescue the economy, renovate American foreign policy, remodel our health-care system, reengineer our energy policy, and reinvent our politics in the bargain. All indications so far scream that Obama is determined to govern from the center. Which means that both the right and the left will have cause for complaint. The only question is which will prove a bigger pain in Obama’s buttocks.

Certainly the opposition of the right will be louder, more relentless, and often extravagantly obnoxious. Consider Limbaugh, attempting to justify his declaration of his desire to see Obama founder, telling Sean Hannity: “We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over and grab the ankles … because his father was black.”

Limbaugh is a clown, of course, but he’s also the most prominent conservative in the country, and one whose influence may actually grow among Republicans, given the abject disarray in which the party currently finds itself. Bereft of a coherent set of ideas, possessing no obvious national leader, the right flank of the GOP appears increasingly likely to adopt a stance of reflexive obstructionism toward Obama’s agenda. The clearest indication has been the performance of Cornyn, who chairs the Republican Senatorial Committee, with regard to Clinton and Holder. In the former case, Cornyn claimed to be after greater transparency from Bill Clinton’s foundation; in the latter, he was looking for a commitment from the incoming attorney general to not prosecute Bush officials for the torture of detainees. Neither gambit was likely to have any actual effect. Instead, they were designed to make a point—and poke a stick in Obama’s eye.

Not all the roadblocks being thrown up by the right are quite that mindless, however. Holds have also been placed on Obama’s nominees to head the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality—both likely part of a longer-term strategy to fight the climate-change legislation soon coming down the pike. Over in the House, meanwhile, Minority Leader John Boehner’s howling over Obama’s stimulus package is intended to maintain pressure for more tax cuts and less spending, a maneuver that seems to be having the desired effect.

The left has its own set of concerns about the stimulus—indeed, the diametrically opposite ones that are animating the right. From the moment that Team Obama floated details of the plan, liberals have complained that the ratio of tax cuts to investment was seriously out of whack as a matter of sound economics; and also that, in political terms, it represented a sort of pre-capitulation to the Republicans both unnecessary and unwise. Leading the chorus of critics has been Paul Krugman, who observed the other day in his blog that the House had scaled back mass-transit spending in order to accommodate the tax cuts. “I feel a bit of post-partisan depression coming on,” Krugman sighed.

The liberal angst over Obama simmered throughout the transition, fired by a set of appointments, especially on economics and national security, so conspicuously centrist that it seemed to some Washington players almost designed to alienate progressives. “They didn’t throw any bones to the left,” says one prominent Democrat. “And they’re just too smart for that to have been an accident.” But the worries never came to a boil, and they may not for some time. Indeed, the left thrilled to the initial set of executive orders issued by Obama during his first two days in office, not least the one ordaining the closure of Guantánamo within a year and the one that included this: “All executive directives, orders, and regulations inconsistent with this order, including but not limited to those issued to or by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from September 11, 2001, to January 20, 2009, concerning detention or the interrogation of detained individuals, are revoked to the extent of their inconsistency with this order.” (A sweeter piece of bureaucratese has rarely been committed to paper.)


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