Happy New Year.
We've seen an encouraging post-Election Day trend from President Obama -- namely, that he seems to be following President Clinton's lead and moving toward the center. Evidence of this is abundant -- the tax-cut compromise, a free trade agreement with South Korea, a non-proliferation agreement that received the blessing of virtually the entire Republican foreign-policy establishment, and a final report from his Deficit Reduction Commission that was embraced by most deficit hawks (including Tom Coburn).
We wrote in 2008 that due to the myriad crises facing the country at his inauguration, Obama would have the chance to be a very good president. In short, he could be as Clinton, but without the moral/ethical problems. Unfortunately, Obama refused to compromise on either the budget-busting stimulus or the healthcare bill, blowing through his political capital, angering Republicans and leading to a historic defeat at the polls. Simultaneously, he managed to take a page from the Jimmy Carter playbook and ignore the stagnant economy, instead focusing his attention on healthcare, a colossal error in judgment.
Obama must realize that he can't accomplish much of anything without considerable Republican support, as the GOP now controls the House and 7 more seats than they did last month in the Senate.
As a result, I expect that the president will actually have a very good year, and his approval ratings will stay above 50 percent. His response to the Tuscon shooting was presidential and gave him a much deserved (albeit perhaps short-lived) bump in the polls. A Republican Congress will serve as a check on his liberal excesses, and it's likely he will find common ground on issues like tax reform and education policy. Replacing Rahm Emanuel with Bill Daley (fresh off his stamp of approval from the Chamber of Commerce) was encouraging.
I've believed all along (and written in this space before) that Barack Obama is a shape-shifter -- the second coming of Bobby Kennedy to leftists (borne out clearly by his Senate record), a messiah to formerly disengaged college kids, the great hope of the black community and a post-partisan healer to independents and Republicans. During his journey to the White House -- and really, throughout his entire political career -- Obama has tried to be all things to all people, and in November 2008, these disparate factions coalesced around him and delivered the presidency.
He has largely failed at the business of governing. However, he has shown himself to be nothing if not adaptable to circumstance, which is why I expect a Clinton-like move shuffle toward the center. Already, we've seen an uproar in the liberal blogosphere over his tax-cut sellout and an uproar from big labor on the South Korea free trade agreement. Paul Krugman and Nancy Pelosi opposed the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles. Obama simply realizes that if he wants a second term, he must co-opt the center. At least, I hope he realizes it.
I haven't approved of the job the president has done thus far, but there clearly is plenty of time for him to turn it around.
As a consequence, the Republican primary -- which will begin in earnest in just a few months -- will be critically important. Will Republicans trot out an old retread, like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee or Rudy Guiliani? Or will they nominate a pragmatic fresh face like Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels or John Thune? Will they nominate a wonkish problem-solver (Pawlenty, Daniels, perhaps Romney on a good day) or a hysterical reactionary (Gingrich, Palin)? WIll the message appeal to independents, or will it simply be about tax cuts, guns and "repeal-and-replace"?
History has showed us that voters don't like to change presidents mid-stream, and tend to favor letting incumbents return to the White House during uncertain times. This was true with Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004. Bush was busy bungling a war, and voters still gave him a second term. This means that the GOP must nominate a serious, pragmatic candidate who can match Obama's rhetoric and personal appeal and win over the independent voters who decide every election.
Republicans underestimate Obama at their peril.