Obama: Is he truly now a ‘centrist’?

The president tried to chart a new course by tacking to the center in his State of the Union speech.

America appears to have a new president, said Gerald Seib in The Wall Street Journal. After seeing his approval ratings plummet and the Democratic Party take a serious beating in the midterm elections, President Obama has charted a new course for the next two years, tacking to the center. The president’s State of the Union address last week was clearly designed to woo independent voters and “disillusioned admirers” who really did believe he’d be a “post-partisan leader.” Sketching out a “grand political bargain” to solve our myriad problems, Obama proposed a five-year spending freeze on discretionary federal programs, a consolidation of federal departments to eliminate waste, and a restructuring of the corporate tax rate to stimulate hiring. He also advocated “a partnership between government and private business,” forged with new federal “investment” in biomedical research, technology, and other growth industries. Obama’s “surprising shift to the center” need not merely be symbolic, said former Clinton pollster Mark Penn in The Washington Post. Look at what Bill Clinton achieved after his course correction in 1994: cuts in federal spending, welfare reform, new trade agreements, a booming economy, and a budget surplus. A centrist agenda is “not just a practical electoral strategy.” It’s the path “to great things and a great presidency.”

Actually, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, the Obama I heard last week was the same, overly earnest professor who has occupied the Oval Office for two years, talking down to the American people. He barely addressed the deficit, asking us to believe he’s suddenly a fan of “shrinking and streamlining government.” As for the 15 million Americans who are unemployed, Obama offered them “greater Internet access,” “wind and solar,” and “high-speed rail”—all sometime in the indefinite future. Instead of seizing the center, “he went straight for the mush. Maybe he thinks that’s what centrism is.” This was a missed opportunity for Obama, said Matthew Continetti in The Weekly Standard. The day after he spoke, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the coming year’s deficit at $1.5 trillion. Americans are “in the mood to take fiscal issues seriously.” Had Obama used this speech to reposition himself as “a deficit hawk,” and to advocate the specific proposals of his own deficit commission, he would have won the support of many Republicans as well as independents. Instead, “he punted.” Now it’s up to Republicans to “take the ball and run.”

Actually, Obama did address the deficit, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. In addition to proposing a five-year freeze on domestic spending, he warned—albeit vaguely—of the need for other painful measures, including cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. And he challenged Republicans to work with him on the budget crisis, saying, “We will move forward together, or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party.” Unfortunately, neither party is willing to take the drastic steps that are necessary, said William Galston in The New Republic. The GOP still clings to its perennial delusion that we can cut taxes and cut the deficit at the same time. And neither Republicans nor Democrats have the guts to overhaul Social Security or Medicare, fearing a backlash from older voters in 2012. As a result, the government will spend more than $1 trillion more than it takes in for the third consecutive year. With Washington still playing political games, “a fiscal train wreck” looms ahead.

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