Obama: Centrist or Liberal? Five Key Tests

President Obama’s inaugural address is behind us, with reviews ranging from tepid to enthusiastic. But excepting the frothy TV coverage, most found the moment outweighed and overwhelmed the speech. One is reminded of the last scene in the brilliant film The Candidate, in which the idealistic Robert Redford, having won the election, turns to his advisers and says, “What do we do now?”


Well, that’s the question, or rather the series of questions, which will face the new president. Most haven’t been answered in two years of campaigning or an active transition period. On the immediate horizon are five major policy decisions which will, to a large extent, decide the contours of President Obama’s first year and whether his first term is successful.

The first question: Does he really want to hang the country’s economic recovery on the House Democrats’ stimulus package? Filled with pork, scanty on tax cuts, and lacking even the robust infrastructure spending which Obama promised, it seems more like liberal Democratic politics as usual than the right formula to jump-start the economy. And it is unlikely to attract much Republican support in its current form. So the first question really boils down to whether he will he do battle with his own party to make the bill more attractive to Republicans. If so, that will set the tone for bipartisan work on a host of issues including health care and entitlement reform. If not, this suggests we are about to see a series of measures enjoying only Democratic support and leaning sharply left.

The next question: Will his national security policy be rhetorically different but substantively quite similar to his predecessor? We have heard about ending “enhanced interrogation” — but also about a secret loophole. We expect him to announce the closing of Guantanamo — but not complete that task until, perhaps, his first term ends. We know he is setting out on a withdrawal plan in Iraq — but will flexibility and a residual force be built in which would neatly coincide with the Bush administration’s game plan? That in turn raises another question as to whether his liberal base will notice and care. Many conservatives are hoping he ignores the cries (if any) from the base, but changes little in practice from the reviled Bush-era approach to national security.

Third on the big question list is health insurance. Is he serious about a national health insurance plan this year? Hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, will be spent on more bailouts and the stimulus plan. That leaves some experts speculating that he can’t be serious about enacting yet another major piece of legislation which would cost hundreds of billions more. Yet every indication is that Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Daschle is pushing full steam ahead. That in turn raises yet another question as to whether he is intent on pushing forward a government-oriented health care system which may in practice devolve into a single-payer system. Here, we don’t know the President Obama’s stomach for extended political conflict needed to push through such a plan. Nor do we know the extent of the recession’s impact on businesses (which will be the target for a health care coverage mandate or tax) and the degree to which Americans, when confronted with limits on personal control of their health care, will support such a move.


Fourth on the list of telling issues: Will he knuckle under to Big Labor’s agenda on card check legislation, protectionism, and perpetual auto bailouts? He has sounded less enthusiastic of late about taking away the secret ballot rights of workers, but would he take on his Democratic allies if they pushed that item along on their legislative agenda? Stalled free trade talks at Doha and unratified South Korea and Colombia free trade agreements await the new president. Does he push forward or derail them in a flurry of demands for environmental and labor “standards” — which amount to restrictions on goods coming into the U.S. from countries which don’t follow American minimum wage and OSHA laws?

And finally, we will see how intent he is on reaching out to social conservatives. He’s now talking about deferring to Congress on whether to roll back limitations on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research imposed by the Bush administration. Will he act with caution as well on abortion and gay rights, or will he merely talk in soothing tones while reverting to the liberal line on social issues?

At the heart of all five of these issues is the very real and entirely unanswered question: Who just took office? Some might say he is centrist who is inclined to push for a bipartisan stimulus bill, continue the Bush foreign policy with some rhetorical flourishes, do the bare minimum on health care, give short shrift to Big Labor, and go slow on a liberal social agenda. There are plenty of speeches and personnel picks which might lead one to that alignment on these pressing issues.


But it is equally possible that he will accede to the wishes of the liberals for a gargantuan spending bill, veer left in national security, push through his own version of Hillary Care, go slow on free trade, and go fast on Big Labor’s wish list and the liberal agenda on social issues. Again, there are speeches and personnel selections which might point to that set of choices.

Remarkable as it might seem, we simply don’t know at this point which way he is heading. If it is toward the first set of options, he will enjoy large bipartisan majorities and buy some political cover when things go awry. If it is the latter, he is likely to incur battle after battle with Republicans, risk losing support from Blue Dogs, and have to face the music alone if things don’t go as planned. In a matter of months we will find out just what sort of first term our 44th president wants to have.


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