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A Cautious Obama Picking His Fights Carefully

Barack Obama won an impressive victory on November 4 and has overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and Senate on his side. But that doesn’t mean he is going to get everything he wants. And it doesn’t even mean he is going to try. That’s what we’ve been seeing this week: the fine art of picking his fights and conserving political capital.

First was the Georgia Senate race. Sure, the president-elect recorded some calls and sent his staffers into the state. And, yes, the AFL-CIO blew some more union cash collected from their members. But Obama studiously declined to campaign in person. It turned out to be a smart move. He might have converted a double-digit loss to a high single-digit loss, but he would not have rescued Democrat Jim Martin. And had he appeared, the loss would have been seen as a personal rebuke. Lesson: don’t pick political fights you aren’t going to win.

Next up is the auto bailout. Obama has gone from lauding the auto industry as the backbone of  the American economy to cautioning that a viable plan to revive the industry and protect the taxpayers is essential. Moreover, he isn’t personally on the phone twisting arms and cajoling his former Democratic allies in the Senate. It might have something to do with bailout fatigue and the latest poll showing the public is fed up with the car makers. (When the Big Three can’t get the public in Michigan on their side, you know they’re in trouble.) Congressional Democrats may whine that he is not more involved, but he (at least at this stage) has not shown any inclination to immerse himself in the morass of trying to cobble together conflicting interests (i.e., environmentalists and labor advocates) to construct a bailout deal which the public disdains and which likely would only be an initial down payment on the needed rescue funds. (He seems content to let Rahm Emanuel work out some interim deal.) The lesson once again: don’t publicly clamor for something you can’t deliver.

What does this portend for the Obama administration? It would be a mistake to conclude that the president-elect doesn’t have big plans. Rather, it leads one to the conclusion that he’s not going to fritter away his political chits even before he is sworn in. He has huge goals, so his approach is coming into focus: be conciliatory on everything but the big ticket items he really wants.

First, we see the conciliation. President-elect Obama delivered a line-up of national security nominees that didn’t quite send a thrill up the leg of conservatives, but did surprise and please them. He enlisted Paul Volker, Ronald Reagan’s right hand man at the Fed who beat back inflation in the 1980s, and Christina Romer, whose research on the impact of tax cuts cheered conservatives.

And we saw him defang his former rivals. With Hillary Clinton’s selection as secretary of state, Bill and Hillary Clinton are happy as clams. And the Clintons’ supporters and former officials are filling the ranks of the new administration.

Also, Obama is already backpedaling on tax increases. The windfall profit tax on oil companies came off the table. And he’s making the Left nervous that he might be “buying into the right-wing frame that raising any taxes — even those on the richest citizens and wealthiest corporations — is bad for the economy.”

But before they conclude that Obama is confrontation-adverse, conservatives should be aware of what is coming down the pike: an enormous spending package dressed up as a “stimulus” and a campaign ripped from the presidential race’s playbook to deliver national health care. On those items you can expect him to use the bully pulpit and his roledex, while unleashing Rahm Emanuel to round up every vote needed in Congress.

There will be no half-measures on the items which are central to his re-election prospects. For if the economy does not revive and he fails to deliver on the Democrats’ most cherished domestic agenda item (nationalized health care) it may be tough sledding in 2012.

Aside from these big ticket items, it gets trickier. What about Big Labor’s prized “card check” bill? His aide recently gave a curt sign of support for the measure which would spare Big Labor the trouble of secret ballot elections when unionizing workers. But would he really risk a battle royale — especially without a certain 60 votes in the Senate to defeat a filibuster? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would certainly lick his chops at the prospect of defeating a measure which the public overwhelmingly opposes and which has been deemed critical to the Democrats’ most important special interest group and ally.

Then there are those knotty social issues. Will Obama avoid a public spat with the military and disappoint gay voters by leaving in place “don’t ask, don’t tell“?  One report suggests he might. But then there is his promise to pass the Freedom of Choice legislation superseding all abortion regulations and restrictions. That will be a political donnybrook.

We know very little about Obama’s core beliefs. But we do know he’s an exceptionally crafty politician. So we can expect he will pick and choose these fights very carefully. The prevailing criteria, one suspects, will be: can he win on a given issue and will it further his own political standing? If it does neither, it will surely come off the to-do list. And as we have seen on a slew of issues from FISA extension, to taxes, to the Clintons, he is not going to be hung up by some dimly-remembered campaign promises.

That might not be New Politics, but it is very smart politics. And no one has ever denied Obama was one smart politician.