With Friends Like These

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 Here was Nancy Pelosi, proclaiming that George W. Bush’s tax cuts should be repealed long before their scheduled expiration in 2010—contrary to Obama’s leanings.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.)

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.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

With Friends Like These