Obama the Centrist: Should We Be Surprised?

Categories: People, The Obamas

In an earlier post I noted the growing unease among left-leaning bloggers regarding Obama’s initial appointments and policy statements. His national security and economic teams are filled with either Clinton-era holdovers or those who espoused the very policies in Iraq or on economic issues that Obama promised to change.  And Obama’s few public statements, such as his equivocating response at his most recent press conference regarding whether he would stick to his campaign pledge to pull out combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, have done little to assuage these fears.

That unease has now spilled over into the mainstream punditocracy, with recent columns by Frank Rich (see here) , Bob Herbert (here)  and David Corn (here) among many expressing concern that Obama’s message of change has been sacrificed on the altar of competence, credentials and continuity.  That sentiment is concisely captured in the lead passage from yesterday’s article at the website Politico (see here): “Liberals are growing increasingly nervous — and some just flat-out angry — that President-elect Barack Obama seems to be stiffing them on Cabinet jobs and policy choices. Obama has reversed pledges to immediately repeal tax cuts for the wealthy and take on Big Oil. He’s hedged his call for a quick drawdown in Iraq. And he’s stocking his White House with anything but stalwarts of the left. Now some are shedding a reluctance to puncture the liberal euphoria at being rid of President George W. Bush to say, in effect, that the new boss looks like the old boss.”

Without judging the merits of Obama’s initial appointments or policy statements, let us concede that they are far more centrist and moderate than one on the Left might expect from an agent of “change.”  The question becomes: should we be surprised?

The answer, I suggest, is no. Presidency scholars have long understood that one can often discern clues regarding a president-elect’s personality and likely governing style by closely examining their pre-presidential political behavior, focusing particularly on those experiences that come closest to mimicking the exercise of executive functions.  For example, Jimmy Carter’s efforts while President to pressure Congress by taking his message to the people came as no surprise to those who studied his use of similar tactics as Governor of Georgia. Similarly, longtime observers of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as California governor were not surprised when he proved unwilling as President to push conservative legislation on hot-button issues such as restricting abortion, mandating school prayer or rolling back affirmative action; despite his conservative rhetoric to the contrary Reagan had proved much more moderate when dealing with a Democratically-controlled legislature in California.  And who was surprised by Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal, given the history of “bimbo eruptions” characterizing his political life?

To be sure, this process of predicting behavior based on past executive experience is not foolproof and is often easier done in retrospect than prospectively. For some events (see 9-11), there is no equivalent prior experience. Moreover, the process becomes more difficult when, as is the case with Obama, the president-elect has little prior executive experience. The difficulty becomes how to sift through an individual’s prior experiences – much of which seems of little relevance to the presidency – to discern those that are most telling for predicting presidential behavior. One approach is proposed by political scientist James David Barber, who suggests we should pay particular attention to the strategy an individual employs to achieve his “first independent political success” – a political goal or position of political prominence. Barber describes this period as “the time of emergence, the time the young man found himself” and suggests that the tactics used to achieve this success become a key component of the individual’s operating style throughout their political life.   .

What is Obama’s analogous moment?  When did he achieve his first public prominence on the national stage? I would argue that it is not his half a term in the Senate, most of which was spent in preparation for his presidential campaign, nor his prior three terms in the Illinois state legislature. Nor is it in his much-discussed role as community organizer, which is more akin to a legislative than executive function.  Instead, if we want to understand his preference for surrounding himself with established, credentialed Ivy Leaguers, and his accent on continuity and moderation rather than dramatic change, we should examine his time at Harvard Law School from 1988-92, particularly his successful effort to become the first African-American to head the Harvard Law Review. It was his first electoral effort, and the publicity from that experience led him to publish his memoir Dreams from My Father in 1995 which ends at the point where he enters Harvard Law. In addition to the publicity, Obama learned valuable lessons from this experience regarding how to navigate through polarized waters, and how to appear to be many things to many people.

The story of Obama’s efforts to become an editor and then president of the Review cannot be fully described in a post of this length, although I hope to devote a separate post describing his strategy.  A good description of this period is provided in this Frontline piece (view here).  Suffice to say he won election at a time when the law school was highly polarized between the Left and the Right on issues such as faculty promotion to tenure, race, and affirmative action.  Classmates recall him as someone who exercised effective leadership, but not by expressing his own views on these issues. Although sympathetic to the Left’s perspective, he proved effective at playing his cards very close to his vest, and finding a middle way between polarized factions. Once selected to head the Harvard Law Review, there was an expectation of those on the Left that he would align himself with them, by championing their politics and appointing them to key editorial positions. Instead, Obama reached out to conservatives including members of the Federalist Society; he emphasized meritocracy rather than ideology in his appointments, and in so doing disappointed many on the Left.

In short, we see that all the hallmarks of his leadership style, as manifested to date as president-elect, were honed or at least were evident in his first political success at Harvard Law.  So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that his initial appointments seem to emphasize competence and continuity more than progressive change.  Indeed, the real surprise would have been if he veered away from the style that proved so successful in his political life to date.

 

3 Responses to Obama the Centrist: Should We Be Surprised?

  1. Peter Baumann says:

    As someone who has been an Obama supporter for a while, I became increasingly uneasy during the past year as Obama appeared to be more left-leaning than the centrist politician that had persuaded Newsweek to publish a cover with his face over the headline “Seeing Purple.” I understand why the left is uneasy with the tack Obama’s transition has taken so far, but I, for one, am happy that my gut instincts were correct with regards to his executive strategy.

  2. I agree that Obama’s emphasis on competence and coalitions is consistent with much in his life. For another interesting take on his strategy from a long-term perspective, this article makes an interesting argument.

    And isn’t W.’s tenure the total exception to this argument? Little in his Texas tenure would have suggested the last 8 years – and it’s not just because of 9/11 changing the context.

  3. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Jason – Many would argue that until 9-11, Bush’s actions as president were entirely consistent with how he dealt with the Texas legislature as Governor. Recall how he worked in bipartisan fashion with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind education reform bill, for example, and how he compromised on his tax reduction bill in order to get Democratic support in the Senate. From this perspective, 9-11 really did change everything. It certainly changed Bush’s leadership style.

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