By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Just about everyone is giving President-elect Barack Obama advice based on one interpretation or another of what his victory really means. Obama should be wary of any counsel that the advice-givers had in mind before a single vote was counted.
The worst advice will come from his conservative adversaries, the people who called him a socialist a few days before the election and insisted a few days later that he won because he was really a conservative. The older among them declared after the 1980 election that the 51 percent of the vote won by Ronald Reagan represented an ideological revolution, but argue now that Obama's somewhat larger majority has no philosophical implications.
These conservatives are trying to stop Obama from pursuing any of the ideas that he campaigned on -- universal access to health care, a government-led green revolution, redistributive tax policies, a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, more robust economic regulation.
Their gimmick is to insist that the United States is still a "center-right" country because more Americans call themselves conservative than liberal. What this analysis ignores is that Americans have clearly moved to the left of where they were four, eight or ten years ago.
The public's desire for more government action to heal the economy and guarantee health insurance coverage, along with its new skepticism about the deregulation of business, suggests that we are a moderate country that now leans slightly and warily left.
But that wariness means that progressives should avoid offering advice based on the assumption that an ideological revolution has already been consummated. They should not imitate the triumphalism of Karl Rove and his acolytes, who interpreted President Bush's 50.8 percent victory in 2004 as the prelude to an enduring Republican majority.
Fundamentally, ours is a non-ideological nation. Many who would like the government to act more boldly still need to be persuaded of government's capacity to succeed.
Here again, Obama's situation closely resembles Reagan's. Like our 40th president, Obama has been authorized to move in a new direction. If Reagan had the voters' permission to move away from strategies associated with liberalism, Obama has sanction to move away from conservative policies. Reagan was judged by the results of his choices, and Obama will be, too.
Yet Reagan offers another lesson: His first moves were bold, and Obama should not fear following his example. The president-elect is hearing that his greatest mistake would be something called "overreach." Democrats in Congress, it's implied, are hungry to impose wacky left-wing schemes that Obama must resist.
In fact, timidity is a far greater danger than overreaching, simply because it's quite easy to be cautious. And anyone who thinks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her followers are ultra-leftist ideologues has been asleep for the past two years. As Pelosi noted in an interview in her office this week, her moves have been shaped by a Democratic House caucus that includes both staunch liberals and resolute moderates. She knows where election victories come from.
"We have some fairly sophisticated people here who understand that you win seats in the middle," she said, noting that Democrats did not win their majority in 2006 and then expand it this year "by espousing far left views." The priorities of congressional Democrats, she added, are close to those of the new president.
That's true, and it underscores the fact that you don't have to be "far left" to be bold. This is something that Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff and no ideologue, understands. In interviews yesterday on both ABC and CBS, Emanuel made clear that Obama's overarching priority is to right the economy and that his other objectives fit snugly into that framework.
He sees Obama acting in four areas of concern to a middle class that "is working harder, earning less and paying more." The list: health care, energy, tax reform and education. All are issues on which Obama should not be afraid to be audacious.
The economic crisis, Emanuel said, provides "an opportunity to finally do what Washington has for years postponed." Here, the model is Franklin Roosevelt, who in the 1930s saw the objectives of economic recovery and greater social justice as closely linked.
President-elect Obama can spend most of his time fretting warily about the shortcomings of past presidents and how to avoid their errors. Or he can think hopefully about truly successful presidents and how their daring changed the country. Is there any doubt as to which of these would more usefully engage his imagination?