The Myth of the Center

Even before President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address last week, the press narrative was clear: Obama would be "moving to the center," a voyage that would anger his Democratic supporters, be dismissed as inadequate by his Republican opponents, but would probably help him with independent voters.

"Obama Woos Center to Embrace His Vision of the Future," read The Wall Street Journal. "Obama Speech Signals Move to Political Center," said Reuters. "Obama's State of the Union Speech Is Another Move to the Center," said USA Today.

But did Obama really "move" anywhere? And what exactly is "the center," anyway?

When we examine the speech and everything that happened in the days afterward, it's hard to conclude that the Obama administration has undergone some kind of significant ideological change. The president hasn't moved to reverse any of the policy successes of his first two years (health-care reform being the most notable). The Chicago-born longtime Washington politico with Wall Street ties who served as Obama's chief of staff was replaced by another Chicago-born longtime Washington politico with Wall Street ties. While Obama certainly threw Republicans a few rhetorical bones in his address, most were things he has said before, like his professed interest in medical malpractice reform. We're talking about a speech after all -- for as long as he has been a national figure, Obama has used speeches to "reach out" to Republicans and assure voters that what binds us together as Americans is more important than the divisions of party. You may remember that in the 2004 convention speech that brought Obama to national attention, he said, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America."

Lovely as it may be, that message lacked ideological content, and it has never been easy to take a precise measure of Obama's ideological core. He has always seemed to advocate policies as progressive as he believes the moment will allow, but the same could be said about Bill Clinton. What matters is how you judge the moment. But let's be honest: Barack Obama was always nearer to the center than either the left or right believed. In 2008, progressives saw his enormous talents and inspiring campaign and assumed he not only believed everything they did but would fight for those beliefs without compromise. Conservatives, on the other hand, decided fairly quickly that he was a radical leftist with plans for a Marxist revolution.

It's difficult to discuss Obama's ideology when one of our two major parties has taken on such a bizarre view of it, one that says that Obama is a socialist intent on the destruction of everything we hold dear. Influential people and millions of their followers believe that the Affordable Care Act -- under which most Americans will continue to get their health care from private providers, paid for by private insurance -- constitutes a socialist nightmare that is just a way station on the road to private property being abolished and Americans being herded into collective farms. Ideology has begun to lose its meaning.

The blinkers this imposes lead the simple-minded among us to conclude, for instance, that when Obama called this a "Sputnik moment" -- a challenge that will lead us to rise to new heights of achievement -- he must have been complimenting the Soviet Union's command economy (and yes, it was the former governor of Alaska who thought that). Naturally, conservatives don't believe there's much of a real "move to the center" going on, because they long ago decided that all of Obama's motives are sinister. So anything that looks like moderation can only be a clever tactic to mask the unchanged radical agenda.

As for the left, it hasn't been too exercised about the supposed "move." Perhaps progressives have stopped expecting much, but they may also have learned not to be too concerned about things that are purely symbolic. Obama can make nice to big business if he wants by appointing CEOs to commissions or choosing a new chief of staff from the corporate world, but any complaints from the left were pro forma at best.

If all it takes to "move to the center" is some inclusive rhetoric, then by all means, Obama can move wherever he likes. The "center," after all, is a rather nebulous place, one defined, if it can be at all, by what it isn't. Just as a "centrist" doesn't know what he believes until you tell him what the left and right believe, the center is something we can define only by what people who actually believe something believe. If one side moves to the ideological edge, has the center been tugged along behind it? Or is it now the place where the other side was all along? A health-care plan like the ACA used to be centrist, as it was when advocated by moderate Republicans. But then Republicans decided it was a socialist plot. Of course, that's what they said about Medicare when it passed, but now that same GOP campaigns against Medicare cuts, making the program something defended (rhetorically, anyway) by all sides.

That isn't to say Obama hasn't done things of late that actually should give progressives agita, like freezing the salaries of federal workers. But this has been his pattern all along -- big progressive initiatives, combined with just enough concessions and "reaching out" to the right to convince the middle of his good will and the left that it can't trust him.

It's easier to imagine administrations, from your party or the other, as something ideologically simple, easily placed on a one-dimensional continuum from liberal to conservative. But things don't work that way in real life. Is Barack Obama a "real" progressive in his heart?

The answer is, who knows, and who cares? After all, Ronald Reagan was certainly a real conservative, yet he did quite a few liberal things during his presidency. What matters most isn't what a president feels but what he does.

The next time you hear somebody say that Obama is "moving to the center," the next question you should ask is, what does he or she mean by that? Is it just about rhetoric -- something with real but limited consequence? Is it about moves like the appointment of a commission that get momentary headlines but have no real impact? Or is it something with more concrete significance -- the beginning of a new policy or the abandonment of an old one? Is it the continuation of something he's done all along, in which case it might be in the center, but it isn't a move?

Those questions make it more difficult to render the superficial judgment, the one concerned only with appearances. But they also get you a bit closer to the truth, complex and muddied though it may be.

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