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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Obama the Centrist”

The big discussion-point in national politics right now is the effort to ideologically characterize the emerging Obama administration. And the consensus, across ideological and partisan lines, is that this is looking like a Clintonian, “centrist” administration–an opinion very likely to be reinforced by the announcement of Obama’s economic policy team today.
The more self-consciously progressive members of the commentariat are dealing with this apparent reality calmly, if not very happily. Some, like Jerome Armstrong of MyDD and Glenn Greenwald at Salon, are saying “toldja so,” pointing to a variety of signals from Obama dating back to the beginning of his presidential campaign. Others like Chris Bowers of OpenLeft and Chris Hayes at The Nation are a bit antsier, though the “B word”–betrayal–has yet to be unholstered, at least in the mainstream blogosphere.
Aside from noting that it may be a bit early, with Obama’s appointees being only half-announced at most, to make any sweeping generalizations about his “team,” much less his agenda, I have three cautionary notes about the effort to ideologically typecast the Obama administration.
First, I would amplify a point being made implicitly by some of the “toldja so” analysts: Barack Obama never really embraced the critique from the left of Clintonism on policy grounds that, say, John Edwards avidly made. Sure, Obama indicted the Democratic members of the Beltway Establishment for questionable ethics, conventional thinking, detachment from the public, and unproductive partisanship, but never, with the arguable exception of the series of steps that led to the invasion of Iraq, accused Clintonians of pursing policies that proved disastrous under the Bush administration. On the one big domestic policy difference where Obama earlier in his career dissented from Clinton, welfare reform, he largely recanted. On another, trade policy, much of the Democratic Party, including many Clintonians, have had second thoughts. And on the main issue that matters right now, economic policy, Obama, particularly during the general election campaign, made it clear that a return to the broad outlines of Clinton administration policies was what he had in mind.
Second, it’s very important to comprehend the radicalizing effect of the last eight years on those Clinton administration veterans who are entering the Obama administration. Most obviously, the New Democratic confidence that Clinton and his allies had identified a Third Way in both domestic and international policy that would usher in a period of endless peace and prosperity is long gone. Perhaps Hillary Clinton could not bring herself to admit error in supporting the Iraq War resolution, but she was in a definite minority among Democrats who took the same position in 2002. Enthusiasm for deregulation, an aggressive pro-trade agenda, and in general, the proposition that the New Economy had repealed a lot of the old rules, has notably waned. Indeed, some of the “centrist” rethinking in the 2000s has been a mirror image of the “progressive” rethinking in the 1990s of its reflexive hostility to such Clintonian policies as deficit-reduction and welfare reform. Democratic “centrism” just ain’t what it used to be, for better or for worse.
Third, it is impossible to overstate the precedent-obliterating nature of the current economic emergency, which makes a lot of the speculation about the ideological character of Obama and his appointees basically an exercise in predicting that they might have done in a completely different context. “Left” or “center,” we’re all looking for a New Deal now, and while we may hold different, ideologically-driven perspectives on the shape of that New Deal, they are increasingly being subordinated to the common desire for immediate and “reassuring” action. Remember the white-hot anger of some progressives towards the original September “bailout” legislation? Just a few weeks later, there may be some grumbling and muted dissent about additional bailouts, but the general realization that whole economic sectors are in danger of collapse has trumped most arguments, just as many conservative complaints about government intervention in the economy have quickly faded. (Perhaps the dumbest thing about the “center-right country” arguments being made by conservatives seeking to minimize the implications of November 4 is that they don’t take into account the vast swing to the left that was set into motion on September 15).
So wherever you place yourself on the ideological spectrum, counting up Obama’s Clinton administration veterans or typecasting appointees as “centrist” or “progressive” or “liberal” may be misleading. Just as it is apparent that the Democratic Party of the 1990s, and its internal fault lines, has changed, this is a different country than the one Barack Obama sought to lead when he announced his candidacy for president in 2007.

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