Obama Should Govern from the Left--Center--Right--All of the Above

Saturday, November 22, 2008 at 12:42 PM

Advice is about as expensive as talk. Nancy Pelosi reportedly thinks that Obama should govern from the middle. The Gaucho Politico thinks that Obama should govern from the left. According to a horde of folks on the right, from retired Army Colonel David F. Bedey to the Chairman of the Arizona Republican Party to Newsweek editor Jon Meacham have repeatedly stated that America remains a "center-right" nation which requires that Obama govern accordingly (i.e, to the Center-right). Peggy Noonan doesn't explicitly call us a center-right bunch, but implies that Obama has to moderate his governance to win over the 50 million-plus of us who voted for McCain (a caution she never deemed necessary for Mr. Bush, whose victory margins were considerably smaller). All that unsolicited advice is starting to sound like the Yardbirds' famous song "Over, Under, Sideways, Down." Fortunately, I'm here to offer my own really inexpensive advice.

There's only one way for any President to govern that has a chance of long term success and it isn't any of the hodge-podge one-size-fits-all advice being heaped on Obama. Any president fit to hold the office needs to govern in the way that president genuinely thinks is in the long term best interests of the country. Figuring out what actions and policies will serve that long term interest is the crux of the president's job and no president will be any better than his/her judgment on that decision. And the two surest ways for Obama or anyone else to screw this up are to (a) pander to the base that elected him, and (b) view all questions and alternatives through the straitjacket of labels like left, right, and center.

It seems top me that the determination of the country's long term interests involves two major factors. The first is obviously whether an action will serve the nation well if allowed to play out over the requisite time period. The second is whether the mood and views of the electorate and the other branches of government will allow that action the time to play out. It's on the second factor that the political leanings of the country become relevant.

The first factor is a function of the president's character and personality, including personal judgment on social, economic, and military issues, and includes judgment in selecting advisers. Imagination is important, especially during times like these when it couldn't be much clearer that we need to change the course that brought us to this point of multiple emergencies. The ability to actually listen to those advisers with an open mind, and to sometimes change opinion based on the input, is crucial. The ability to see beyond rigid labels is also crucial, especially when the current set of labels has been developed as a means of foreclosing certain avenues of action. By that I largely mean having turned certain labels into bogeymen with sufficient scare power that all debate on an issue can be ended by simply screaming "Socialism" or "free markets."

The second factor is a limiting one. It's essentially the political calculation of whether an idea that the president genuinely believes in will be allowed to work. No president will be able to accomplish much if his own party does not support him in the legislature, or if the judiciary is determined to strike down law after law passed by the legislature. No legislature will support the president's agenda if the populace is sufficiently opposed to it that the legislators fear for their futures. How this factor plays out depends on where the legislators and the public stand now on each individual problem, and how much Obama and his administration can move that stand, if it is too far from what Obama hopes to do.

So claims that we are a "center-right" nation are not, even if true, determinative of "how Obama should govern." Nor is the statement likely to be true as a blanket statement, or to remain true over time. We may be a center right nation when it comes to foreign relations, a center left nation when it comes to Social Security, and maybe even a leftist nation when it comes to corporate power. And how do the terms "left" and "right" even apply to issues like government surveillance and civil rights? Both leftist and rightist authoritarian governments invade the hell out of their citizens rights and privacy.

I'd venture that most of us who voted for Obama did so at least partly because he appears to have the character and temperament to make wise choices, to listen to many opinions, to be persuaded by external facts that a change in course might be needed, and to see beyond rigid, divisive labels that constrict rather than further debate. I'd bet my life that folks all along the spectrum of political views will do everything in their power to prevent any actions that are contrary to their ideology.

If Obama is a successful president, he will at various times anger and disappoint just about every existing political faction. If Obama is a great president, he will eventually dismantle many of the existing political factions and form new ones based around the current problems and needs of a very, very different world than the one that existed when the current factions formed.

All of this is one reason why I'm not upset that most of Obama's picks for the high level jobs have worked in the upper levels of government before. That alone does not mean that there won't be change. If Obama can select the right experienced people, and can set the right tone in his relationship with them, he will get a lot of input from people who understand the structure of the government, how its moving parts mesh or grind, and where a design modification may make all the difference in the world.

Obama should govern from his best judgment. Voters should all use our own best judgment in deciding how we feel about that governance. We should all hope that we turn out to have some much needed good luck.


What a great nonpartisan statement! Thanks!!! I have linked to my blog The Hankster