What Might Have Happened
Remember Obama’s initial signature speech (e.g., “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America”), and all the subsequent conciliatory talk of no blue state, no red state America? Obama won, of course, because he captivated the tiny, but influential left, registered vast numbers of new minority voters, raised a billion dollars, and reconstituted the liberal base. But the key margin that got him from 45 to 53% were the independents and old Reagan Democrats. And what put them on board was not just their weariness with George Bush, but rather their flawed hunch that Obama was another Clinton rather than Carter, a realist and centrist rather than an ossified ideologue, who could talk well, bring factions together, and govern from the center.
Had Obama just continued his charade of the campaign in which he reassured centrists on taxes, defense, energy, and spending, he would now be in a far stronger position with Congress, and not falling in the polls.
Imagine not that in his first six months Obama had acted like a conservative (he could not since he won on a liberal agenda), but simply as a more moderate Clinton-like Democrat, albeit with more humility and skepticism:
1) Financial. Barack Obama rallies the nation in January to hang tough and await the natural upswing after the bust that followed an unusual boom period of a near decade. There is no wasted stimulus. There is no $2 trillion deficit. Instead, he promises to hold spending to an annual rise of 2%, and reassures the country that balanced budgets are on the way. Markets steady on news that we won’t be adding another $11 trillion to the debt, and Obama gets credit for the natural cyclical upsurge.
2) Taxes. Obama says he ran on the Clinton-era tax rates—and so must keep his word. Top rates go to 39.5%, but there is no further talk of a healthcare surcharge, much less a lifting of the FICA caps on income over $106,000. In other words, Obama is a classically liberal tax-raiser, who salivates over a 50% state and federal combined rate— but not one approaching 70% in some states. The public accepts that he is a Democrat of the tax and spend sort, but is assured he is no socialist.
3) Reconciliation. After the obligatory two to three weeks of throat-clearing and liberal trashing of his predecessor, Obama by March goes quiet on Bush. To the extent he mentions him, he praises the prior President for keeping us safe for seven years, but promises to do far better on the budget. He taps into independents’ and moderates’ dissatisfaction with the previous deficits, but wins points for magnanimity by not serially evoking “he did it”. In other words, he is not a “they raised the bar on me” / “he did it, not me” / “his mess, not mine” whiner.