President Obama has made all the symbolic moves he needs to move to the center. But the essence of successful triangulation has to be rooted in policy not in image. As key policy issues come up in Congress, the president will have to move to the center or continue to hang out on the left. His choice will set the stage for the elections of 2012.
The symbolism of his response to the Tucson shootings reminded us of President Clinton at Oklahoma City. His initiative to reduce federal regulation is, at least, a cosmetic improvement. (Although it comes as he prepares, by executive action, to impose a carbon tax on American business, a ban on secret ballots in union elections, and FCC efforts to cripple talk radio). His appointment of Daley as his chief of staff sent a signal of coming moderation.
But the rubber will meet the road when the feds run out of money next month and need an increase in the federal debt limit to continue to operate.
Republicans in the House will pass the increase, but only if the legislation also enacts big spending cuts at the same time. These cuts — running in excess of $100 billion a year — will roll back the increases in spending triggered by the stimulus package and reverse the trend of the Obama years, shrinking rather than expanding the federal government.
How will Obama respond?
If he stands his ground and refuses to sign the bill with the spending cut attached, he will trigger a governmental crisis par excellence. Social Security checks may not go out. Soldiers may not get paid. The government may close. And the fight will be simple: Should we borrow more or spend less?
With public opinion solidly behind the Republicans on the issue, Obama may well see the wisdom in beating a retreat. But at what price?
If Obama folds and agrees to big cuts in education, transportation, environmental, and other spending, he will anger the left catalyzing a possible primary fight. He will, in the view of his 2008 supporters, have "sold out" and demands will increase for a liberal alternative in 2012.
And Obama will look weak as he folds in the face of the Republican Congress. He will appear to lack conviction and the power to make his views stick. Weakness is a disease that destroys presidencies.
Republicans need to make his dilemma more acute by extending the debt limit for only three months (about $500 billion) to force Obama to come back to the well for more water before the summer. And then, once again, Republicans can use the legislation as a way of forcing a rollback in Obama's agenda — like the defunding of healthcare?
Either way, Obama has a tough choice — fight on the wrong side of public opinion or look weak caving in.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann