But it’s not hard to see where Obama and the left could be on a collision course. It didn’t go unnoticed in labor circles that when Obama’s transition website, Change.gov, morphed into whitehouse.gov, a number of progressive economic planks suddenly disappeared. Gone were mentions of fair trade. Gone was any reference to EFCA, the so-called card-check bill that would make it much easier to organize unions and is the highest of all priorities for organized labor. Though the promises enumerated there to gays and lesbians are many and explicit—civil unions and full federal rights, workplace non-discrimination, the repeal of don’t-ask-don’t-tell—you can bet that, especially after the Warren imbroglio, the LGBT community will be on lookout for foot-dragging. And there’s foreign policy, where Obama could incite liberal outrage if he doesn’t pull troops out of Iraq as quickly as promised or fails to intervene in Darfur.
As a practical matter, Obama’s management of ideological extremes will play out in his dealings with Congress. And here the difference between the House and Senate will test his dexterity. In the House, with its substantial Democratic majority and the absence of the filibuster, Obama can afford—and is sure to be pressured by his party—to build coalitions from the left toward the center. But in the Senate, a unified minority has the ability to bring his legislative agenda grinding to a halt. So the need for Republican cooperation is essential, and thus the imperative will be to stitch together coalitions from the center out. The tension between the two strategies is obvious; a hell of a balancing act is required.
Judging from Obama’s early moves, most old Washington hands have concluded that the new administration is focused mainly on the Senate. “Everything they’re doing seems to me to be about getting to 60 [votes],” says one such observer. “They forgive Lieberman. They play nice with Susan Collins. They play nice with McCain; I mean, my God, they appoint Janet Napolitano to Homeland Security so that McCain won’t have a serious opponent in Arizona and have to run more to his right. It’s almost diabolical.”
The left, no doubt, is quietly nervous about talk like this. They fret that Obama’s vaunted pragmatism could easily become a dispiriting kind of (dare we say, Clintonian) expedience. For now, progressives remain optimistic, but they make no bones about their intentions to hold Obama’s feet to the fire. “We’re not that worried about centrist trope at the moment,” says one labor activist. “There’s a famous story about FDR meeting with a several labor leaders in the White House who vociferously demanded that he support a number of their proposals. Roosevelt said simply, ‘Make me do it.’ We know that it’s up to us to push Obama our way.”
How vulnerable to that kind of suasion the president will be is an open question. Obama’s election depended on an energized base that was, in many respects, to the left of his own political inclinations and policy proposals. And he’ll be counting on the fealty of that base in 2012. He managed to navigate the shoals in the campaign without any sort of real Sister Souljah moment—a moment when he forthrightly defied a core subset of his supporters. And he’s shown no prediliction for deviating from that M.O. This is why the left has much more leverage with him (and much greater potential to be a thorn in his side) than does the right. Yet the sheer scope of the ambitions that Obama seems to have for his presidency require broad majorities. He appears to take this business of unifying the country seriously, and to do that will require him not just to appear to reach out rightward but to actually … you know, do it.
What Obama is about to learn, I think, is that bi-partisanship, for all its appeal, is easier to talk about than to achieve—even if you dress it up and call it post-partisanship. For all the scenes of apparent transformation emanating from the Mall last week, Washington remains a partisan town. (And there are plenty of pollsters who will tell you that the country is more partisan than ever, Obama notwithstanding.) It’s tempting to say that all of Obama’s stirring words do nothing to alter that reality. But that’s not precisely true: Words are powerful tools and especially so for a man who wields them as effectively as he does. But now they need to be twinned with action—and neither left nor right is going to make that easy.