JONATHAN COHN JANUARY 24, 2011
A story in Sunday's New York Times had the headline "Obama to Press Centrist Agenda in His Address." It was the kind of article that both sources and editors undoubtedly imagined would set the tone for discussion on the Sunday morning shows. And, based on what I saw on television, the sources and editors were right. David Gregory flagged the article just a few minutes into his interview with House Majority Whip Eric Cantor.
But the article itself seemed to paint a more complicated picture than the headline. Obama is trying to "recast himself as a more business-friendly, pragmatic progressive," the article stated, by "emphasizing job creation, deficit reduction and a willingness to compromise in a new period of divided government." But Obama will also make a staunch defense of the Affordable Care Act while calling for more spending on infrastructure, education, and research and development.
Obama will be renewing his call to bring the government's budget closer to long-term balance, the article went on to explain. But he's unlikely to endorse recommendations for significant entitlement cuts that the chairmen of the Bowles-Simpson commission made.
What's going on here? Here's my guess--and, to be clear, it's just a guess based on very little actual reporting.
Obama has some more conservative instincts and will, in the coming two years, follow those instincts on issues like education, housing foreclosures, and perhaps trade. If it means making common cause with Republicans or provoking howls on the left, including from people like me, he'll do it.
On the other hand, Obama has some more liberal instincts, too. He's committed to spending money on investments that make the country more productive and protective of its citizens. That's why he's going to keep pushing infrastructure spending and why he's not about to walk away from health care reform, even a little bit. If Republicans want to attack him for those stands, then so be it.
Of course, on domestic policy, Obama has always had been this hybrid of left- and center-left thinking--i.e., he's still the proverbial "pragmatic progressive" committed to achieving traditional liberal goals but more than willing to embrace some more conservative ideas along the way. But "Obama being consistent" isn't a very good story, for either the administration or the people covering it. That's why, on the eve of the State of the Union, we end up with stories like this instead.
Again, I could be totally wrong about this. (Lord knows Jackie Calmes and Jeff Zeleny have better sources than I do.) And I don't mean to suggest the president won't be changing his approach to governing or, as the Republicans keep saying, ignoring the voters. As E.J. Dionne and Greg Sargent write today, the administration is likely to spend the next two years on consolidating and defending its legislative achievements, rather than making new ones. But that's an operational shift more than an ideological shift.