A Man for All Factions

For decades, the Democratic Party was torn by civil war.

On one side was the liberal left — populist in economics and dovish on foreign policy, in favor of lavish spending programs and suspicious of big business, and hostile to any idea that seemed to give an inch to the conservatives. On the other were the moderates and centrists — pro-market and pro-Wall Street, inclined to tiptoe rightward on issues like crime and welfare, and hawkish about deficits and dictators alike.

In the 1980s, these two factions vied for the opportunity to lose to Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, they fought over the direction of the Clinton administration. In the 2000s, they feuded over whether to support the Iraq war.

But in George W. Bush’s second term, peace broke out. In part, this was because Democrats came to hate Bush so intensely that every other consideration faded into insignificance. In part, it was because the two camps converged on policy: the liberal left largely accepted that it had lost Clinton-era arguments over Nafta and welfare reform, the centrists mostly admitted that they’d been wrong about Iraq, and the two sides found common ground on health care, global warming and income inequality.

But peace was also possible because Barack Obama emerged to bridge the Democratic divide. The left initially wanted John Edwards as the 2008 nominee; the centrists wanted Hillary Clinton. But Obama united the party by persuading both factions that he was really on their side.

The left looked at him and saw a community organizer and Hyde Park intellectual who had been against the Iraq war before being antiwar was fashionable. Of course he was one of them!

The moderates listened to him and heard a postpartisan healer who promised to work with Republicans, cut middle-class taxes and send more troops to Afghanistan. Obviously he was a centrist at heart!

Once campaigning gave way to governing, it was inevitable that one faction or the other would be disappointed. But lately, Obama has managed the more difficult feat of alienating both of them at once.

The party’s centrists, from Blue Dog Democrats to Wall Street, insist that he’s turned out to be far more liberal than they expected. The health care bill was too expensive. The deficits are too big. He’s been too hard on business interests, and on Israel. And what happened to bipartisanship?

On the left, meanwhile, Obama is deemed a disappointment for all the things he hasn’t done. The stimulus should have been bigger. The financial reforms should have been tougher. He should have withdrawn from Afghanistan. He should have taken the fight to the Republicans, instead of letting them obstruct.

Both these arguments are self-serving, of course — a way for activists on both sides to imply, none too subtly, that the Democrats’ dispiriting poll numbers are all the other faction’s fault.

But the widespread appeal of these dueling critiques has left Obama increasingly isolated. And the White House’s attempts to preserve his above-the-fray mystique have backfired: they’ve made the president seem like an ideological enigma, and created the impression that he’s a bystander to his own achievements.

That impression took hold during the debates over health care and financial reform, where left-wing and centrist Democrats alike often complained that they didn’t know exactly where the White House stood. It’s been reinforced lately by Bob Woodward’s portrait of Obama’s Afghanistan deliberations, in which the hawks in the Pentagon and the doves in the Democratic base often seem like more powerful actors than the president himself.

As a result, what was once Obama’s great strength has been transformed into a weakness: neither the center nor the left really trusts him, and neither is prepared to stand by him at a time of crisis.

So the president finds himself alone. Many of the administration’s highest-profile centrists — Peter Orszag, Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel — are either gone or on their way out. The left is wallowing in angst and disappointment. The White House spent recent weeks hectoring progressives about the need to turn out in November, but all these efforts earned was the mockery of Jon Stewart.

Can Obama rebuild his coalition? Perhaps, but not the way he did the first time. He won the White House by being all things to all Democrats (and quite a few independents and even Republicans as well), by making each faction see its own values reflected in his candidacy.

But the days of soaring above the grubbiness of politics are over. If Obama wants to save his presidency, he may have to do it the old-fashioned way: not by transcending his party’s divisions, but by uniting his supporters around their common fears.

Ross Douthat, New York Times

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Full article : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/opinion/04douthat.html