Obama as Centrist (An Oversimplification)

John P. Avlon, author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics, who was also speechwriter and deputy policy director for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign, writes yet another article on Obama as centrist for The Poltico. The article is accurate on many points, but also leaves out much of significance which would show that it is just as inaccurate to argue that Obama is a centrist as to argue that he is a traditional Democratic Party liberal.

Avalon notes some of the criticism of Obama from the left blogosphere, but it should be noted that this is far from universal. The left blogosphere is hardly a homogeneous group of people who share all the same beliefs. There is also the recognition that in a democracy it is necessary for a candidate to try to represent the views of more than a single group. We have all become painfully aware of the consequences of a president who does try to govern from an extremely narrow ideological perspective.

Avalon next points out the fact that Obama is being consistent with what he has written and how he has behaved throughout his political life, and believes that this is consistent with current American views:

But all this outrage ignores the obvious: Throughout his career, Obama has consistently framed himself as a post-partisan centrist. He’s been a bridge-builder all his life, first between black and white, and now between left and right.

It’s a formula for victory in a country that’s essentially center-right. Even after all the alienation from the Bush administration, a new Washington Post/ABC poll affirms that only 19 percent of Americans describe themselves as liberal, while 43 percent say moderate and 35 percent, conservative.

Avalon is correct that Obama has been consistent (and not flip-flopping as Republicans claim). There are two minor problems with what he wrote above. While Obama has been post-partisan, it would be more accurate to describe his views as transcending the traditional left-right linear spectrum than to call him a centrist. It is also misleading to use polls such as the one he cites as this is more a measure of how successful the right has been in demonizing the word liberal. As a consequence, many people will say they are not liberals despite holding liberal views on most issues.

Avalon discusses some of Obama’s writings and political achievements which transcend both partisan politics and the traditional left-right linear spectrum. Again, this does not necessarily mean that it is accurate to call Obama a centrist. Some of Obama’s policies certainly could be characterized as centrist, but not as many as Avalon claims. He writes that, “On health care, he was attacked for not having a single-payer plan that covered every American.” While that certainly places him to the right of Dennis Kucinich, none of the major candidates supported a single-payer plan, and Obama’s health care plan is to the left of the health care plans supported by the major Democratic candidates in 2004 including John Kerry, John Edwards, and Howard Dean.

Avalon’s next statement is both true and a major reason why I supported Obama in the primaries. He writes, “While Clinton proposed a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and a five-year freeze on interest rates, Obama’s instincts were comparatively free-market, less command and control.”I have often written about Obama’s more free market views. While this does make him more of a centrist, in recent years social issues and Iraq have better defined left versus right than economic issues as in the past, with far more people on the left now sharing such free-market views than in the past.

Avalon continues with Obama’s views on religion and responsibility:

Contrary to the stereotype of liberals stridently insisting on secularism, Obama is the first Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter to make his Christian faith a cornerstone of his political appeal. He has been courting the evangelical center since the primaries. More recently, Jesse Jackson threatened to “cut his nuts off” because Obama’s focus on responsible inner-city fatherhood departed from the root-cause playbook of liberal victimhood.

What this misses is that while Obama does stress his religion he has also stressed separation of church and state to a greater degree than any major party candidate I can recall. This is not an example of Obama as being centrist but an example of how Obama transcends the traditional left-right divide. As a secularist I am able to support Obama despite stressing religious views more than I would like to see in a presidential race due to his strong support for separation of church and state. If Obama can bring in more evangelical votes to increase the likelihood of his election, enabling a restoration of the wall of separation of church and state supported by the founding fathers, then this would be a favorable outcome and one which serves liberal (not centrist) ends. As for the next part of the above paragraph, support for personal responsibility is not inconsistent with liberal values.

Avalon concludes:

Obama recognizes that his willingness to reach out to all sides, and eagerness to avoid labels, make his political personality something of a Rorscharch test. It’s inevitable that a politician inclined toward consensus will disappoint many of the true believers — especially those on the far left who see him as an avenging liberal angel. But those believers have misunderstood the roots of their candidate’s broad appeal: Far from an abrupt general election shift, Obama’s steady centrism has been the secret to his success.

While generally true, Avalon’s view of Obama as a centrist is also an example of how Obama is “something of a Rorscharch test.” While a centrist such as Avalon sees Obama as a fellow centrist, this ignores many liberal aspects of Obama’s views. As we are now in a general election campaign, it also most be remembered that there is good reason for Obama to stress those aspects of his views which are most acceptable to centrists and independents, and to attempt to frame his more liberal views with centrist language.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    CMB says:

    I like to describe Barack Obama as a pragmatic progressive with libertarian instincts.

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