David Brooks and Obama: Will the President Listen to the Columnist?

You know when David Brooks writes about the quick collapse of Barack Obama’s popularity, that the President’s approval is really on the decline.  Brooks, after all, is a man who from the start fell for Obama’s charisma and was ready to be seduced.  As Gabriel Sherman reports in the September 9th issue of The New Republic, his romance with the future President began in 2005, when Brooks met with Obama in his Senate office, and found him to be a man with whom he was in philosophical agreement.


“These days,” Sherman wrote, “the center-right Brooks frequently seems more sympathetic toward Obama than the liberal Paul Krugman.” Indeed, Brooks thought at the time of his interview with Sherman that the Obama team’s decisions were ninety-five per cent “good and intelligent.” 

Brooks has for a long time distanced himself from “movement conservatism,” and become the conservative whom liberals love the most. And he admits to thinking that on many issues- particularly ones like inequality, “liberals have been right.” And like Obama, whom he thinks is a Burkean by temperament and philosophy, and a real intellectual like himself, that he has finally found a kindred spirit in the White House. Thus, as Sherman puts it, “Brooks’s sympathetic columns help to validate the key myth of this White House: That it is fundamentally post-partisan.”

It must have been a shock, therefore, when the White House read today’s column. Obama, he has concluded, has moved too far to the Left and has begun to lose “the affection of the 39 percent of Americans in the middle.” Instead of governing from the center, Brooks writes, his administration “has joined itself at the hip to the liberal leadership in Congress….the president has promoted one policy after another that increases spending and centralizes power in Washington.” Acknowledging that all presidents fall in the ratings when the honeymoon is over, Brooks notes that “in the history of polling, no newly elected American president has fallen this far this fast.”


A majority of Americans, some 59 per cent, now think our nation is headed in the wrong direction. This, of course, is giving Republicans hope. Brooks notes that the political expert Charlie Cook thinks the Democrats could lose more than 20 house seats. “The public,” Brooks concludes, “has soured on Obama’s policy proposals,” and independents who once backed him have swung against reform.

Brooks has no sympathy for those liberals who lash out at Obama “because the entire country doesn’t agree with the Huffington Post.”  Certainly, Obama would be foolish were he to take the advice of the radical writers Peter Dreier and Marshall Ganz, who argue in The Washington Post that Obama must show real “audacity” and fight the “entrenched interests” from the Left and stand with the “progressive” movement. If Obama ditches the public option and assuages the insurance industry, they argue, he will end up “angering many of his progressive supporters.” Instead of bi-partisan compromise, they favor “movement building” which they claim is responsible for Obama’s becoming president. While criticizing citizen activists who come to town-hall meetings to express their opposition, they call for “ ‘movement’ tactics” including leaflets, vigils and civil disobedience to get the administration to act as they wish. Protest is evidently good and permissible, when it comes from their side.

These authors, and those who think like them in the vicinity of The Nation magazine, do not understand what Brooks notes: “You can’t pass the most important domestic reform in a generation when the majority of voters think you are on the wrong path.”  It would be a disaster, Brooks writes, for Obama to “permanently affix himself to the liberal wing of his party and permanently alienate independents.” A president cannot succeed by representing only 35 per cent of the nation.


So Brooks provides some wise words for President Obama. But the last sentence of his column presents a problem. “That doesn’t mean,” Brooks writes, “giving up his goals.” It means only that he has to align his “proposals to the values of the political center: fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority.”

True enough. But the rub is that what if President Obama himself does not want to align his policy propels to the center?  What if it is not “events” that have pushed him to the left, as Brooks thinks, but his own beliefs?

How Barack Obama responds in the coming days will answer this question.


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