The rocky road back to the center

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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With the Election Day “shellacking” now in the rearview mirror, pundit after pundit is pointing to Bill Clinton and his centrist actions post 1994 as the ideal model for jumpstarting an Obama presidency stuck in the mud.  When the comparison is made, the broader point is this: Obama needs to get to the center.

And as the new political realities surrounding his presidency set in, Obama is discovering that while a dash to the middle is an obvious and attractive move, executing such an assignment is much easier said than done.

Congressional Democrats for days now have been squabbling over leadership positions, tax cuts and the deficit commission’s early findings, all as their party leader was globetrotting to tend to the other duties of his office. Though the president was thousands of miles away from Washington, he was drawn into tricky debates over the extension of the Bush tax cuts and the proposals of a deficit commission that has been built up as an all-knowing force.

The heavy cuts proposed by the commission drew quick fire from the left wing of the Democratic Party. Nancy Pelosi denounced the bipartisan commission’s solutions as “unacceptable.” Democratic panel member and Illinois congresswoman Jan Schakowsky echoed similar sentiments, saying such cuts to Medicare and Social Security were not something she could support. Their quick and fiery opposition, while not encouraging for the prospect of tackling some of the country’s major problems, did create a political opening for the president to put distance between himself and the more liberal members of his party. Instead, Obama’s statement on the commission’s early findings was tepid, lacking the faintest sign of even a half-hearted embrace. He whiffed.

If the president’s primary aim was to avoid a flare up with his base over the deficit commission, he succeeded. But he was not so fortunate when he floated the trial balloon that the White House would relent on the Bush tax cuts and agree to an across-the-board extension. Soon after David Axelrod told the Huffington Post, “We have to deal with the world as we find it,” Team Obama backtracked, responding to liberal Democrats who took the president to task for throwing in the towel before the gut-wrenching fight over extending the tax cuts had even begun. For the left, it was yet another illustration of Obama shunning their wishes in a vital policy debate.

The deficit commission and the Bush tax cuts will be early tests for gauging how Obama will govern during the second part of his term. So far he has not demonstrated the grit and determination he needs in order to buck his party and establish himself as a man of the center. To do so, Obama must channel the proper method for challenging his party, one that doesn’t alienate his base but doesn’t leave his reelection fate beholden to the conduct of its more staunchly liberal elements. Until he backs down the left of his party in a meaningful and unapologetic way, he will continue to appear timid, weak, and indecisive, characteristics lethal to any presidency.

The political challenges facing Obama are great. But what are daunting obstacles now can be morphed into real political assets later if he plays his hand right. As congressional Republicans and Democrats gear up for a tenacious two years of legislative combat, Obama’s opportunity to play the part of reasonable mediator, emphasize consensus and rebuff critics who said promises of bipartisanship were a façade could leave him as the adult in the room.

Granted, the Republicans did quite a number on Obama over the course of his first two years in office. They turned major legislative accomplishments into big-time political liabilities, transforming his image from a transcending bridge builder into Big Government Barry. Working with Republicans figures to be more of a chore than a pleasure, particularly when they’ve already announced that their top priority over the next two years is ensuring his defeat. Still, if last week was a sign of things to come, Obama will have to be equally leery about a grouchy Democratic caucus determined to not only fight Republicans, but caustically challenge him when they feel he is being unprincipled or insensitive to their needs and wants.

With Democrats to his left and Republicans to his right, Obama may be the only one standing in the center. That’s not a bad place to be.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.