Tuesday, April 21, 2009

President Obama Navigates The Vital Center

(image via nymag)

Today's report that the President will leave open the possibility of prosecutions of Bush administration officials on torture -- a slight backtrack from earlier talk of looking ahead rather than focusing on the past -- shows that he is listening to the wings on both the left and the right. The left blogosphere, instrumental in the President's victory in 2008, erupted at the release of the memos earlier in the week. And that, we cannot fail to note, probably precipitated this rhythmic political double-step.

President Obama has also been acutely aware of the populist anger on his right. Last week's tea parties has led to President Barack Obama ordering his Cabinet to cut $100 million out of the budget in the next 90 days. The President told reporters at the White House before his first meeting with his full Cabinet that there is "a confidence gap when it comes to the American people. They’ve got to feel confident that their dollars are being spent wisely."

It is a peculiar moment in American history. Obama inherits the worst economy since the Great Depression. And his particular consciousness is keyed to the travails of President Lincoln, viewing the present crisis through the prisom of the Civil War. Less often mentioned is the fact that Obama is also the first African-American ever elected President. Every slight misstep -- from the bowing to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (an image that chills the blood of the populist right), as well as the photo-op with Chavez -- strengthens the fringe arguments, already fevered at a black man in the White House, that we might not have a patriotic President (Boston tea party, anyone?).

Rick Wagoner's 31 year career in the automotive industry ended when President Obama handed him his pink slip -- an historic moment in the American Presidency. When was the last time a sitting American President served notice to the head of a company in a vital industry? Granted, Wagoner's hard-headedness in recognizing that SUV's were going the way of the dodo had much to do with GM's fortunes, but still ...

The President's decision was influenced by a consciousness of populist stirrings on the Republican side of the aisle in the Senate Banking Committee, which held hearings over the Big Three bailout. "These leaders have been failures, and they need to go,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, of the auto industry leaders looking for a rescue. What is interesting about the President's slight backtrack from earlier talk of looking ahead rather than focusing on the past with regards to prosecuting Bush-era torture is that the President appears just as conscious of the flak on his left. Much ado has been made of the president's "Team of Rivals" approach leading up to holding office. And of late, regarding his foreign tours of Europe and South America there has been a focus on how President Obama has leveraged his popularity to make inroads at repairing damaged relationships from the Bush administration. But as the President clears his first 100 days the most interesting aspect of his reign thus far domestically is his nimbleness in navigating the political center by tacking both left and right when the occasion merits.

But how long can the President hold back the howling wolves at his political extremities?

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