How Obama Triangulates

by Jonathan Cohn | December 8, 2010

President Obama doesn't like the suggestion that he "triangulates"--i.e., that he tries to position himself between the two political parties. His advisers don't like the suggestion, either. So when Politico's Ben Smith invoked the "t" word earlier this week, he got some pushback:

A White House official emailed yesterday to dispute my labeling President Obama's rebuke to liberal critics yesterday "triangulation."
Obama, the official noted, was "responding to several very loud voices from the left." Triangulation, by contrast, "is an intentional political strategy to win favor with swing voters by pushing off the left. That’s not what the President is doing, and that’s not our strategy."

It's not surprising that Obama and his advisers would be so sensitive about this point. During the presidential campaign and particularly during the presidential nominating process, Obama portrayed himself as very different from Bill Clinton, who famously distanced himself from his party's liberal base after the 1994 midterm elections. As Smith notes, that's not exactly what Obama is doing:

Obama is not, as Dick Morris and Bill Clinton did when the term was coined, scanning the headlines for over-the-top liberals on whom to launch unprovoked presidential surprise attacks, a la Sister Souljah. Obama hasn't been baiting the left, either.

Still, triangulation can take different forms.

Clinton's version was all about splitting the difference between right and left. He shut down the government rather than let Republicans tear down Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But he also declared that the "era of big government is over" and signed a welfare reform bill over the objections of liberal advisors, a few of whom resigned in protest. 

With Obama, the triangulation isn't so much ideological as it is methodological. He's made clear his strong preference for Democratic and, yes, liberal values. During the health care fight, he dropped the public option but never wavered in his position that it was a good idea. And even though he's spent the last few days defending his bargain on taxes, he's repeatedly criticized the Republican fetish for high income tax cuts and promised to fight permanent extension of them when the issue returns in two years.

But Obama has drawn an implicit equivalence between what he considers the extremists in both parties--the nihilists on the right, who would disavow even their own ideas for the sake of defeating Democrats, and the purists on the left, who would reject even reasonable compromises for the sake of drawing sharp ideological divisions. The motives of each group may be different, Obama seems to be saying, but the result is the same: Irresponsible government that lets people suffer unnecessarily. As Smith observes, "This may not be a Morris-style stunt ... but triangulation seems a decent word for it."

For what it's worth, I don't think Obama says these things because they help attract independent voters, although both he and his strategists reportedly think that's the case. I think Obama says these things because he believes them. He's always talked up the importance of progress over posturing--of getting things done rather than scoring political points. And he's always seen himself as the kind of official who operates that way. 

Whether Obama's approach results in better governance, of course, is another story entirely.

Update: I fiddled with the conclusion and added another quote from Ben Smith, whose item is worth reading in its entirety. Also, Greg Sargent has a similar assessment of Obama's strategy, although he argues it's wrong to describe it as "triangulation." I can see his point, but I'm still partial to the term, in part because it allowed me use the great Sesame Street video above.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/79758/obama-clinton-triangulation