Mr. Cool's Centrist Gamble

By David Ignatius
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Barack Obama's aides like to tell the story about his reaction to the monotonous, self-important speeches at his first session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2005. After hearing his colleagues drone on, Obama passed to a staff member a note that read: "SHOOT. ME. NOW."

The impatient freshman senator is about to become president, but he hasn't lost his distaste for Washington politics as usual. And as the inauguration approaches, Obama is doing something quite remarkable: Rather than settling into the normal partisan governing stance, he is breaking with it -- moving toward the center in a way that upsets some of his liberal allies but offers the promise of broad national support.

Obama talked during the campaign about creating a new kind of post-partisan politics -- and dissolving the country's cultural and racial and ideological boundaries. Given Obama's limited record as a centrist politician, it was hard to know if he really meant it. John McCain had a more compelling record of working across party lines than did his Democratic rival.

It turns out that Obama was serious. Since Election Day, he has taken a series of steps to co-opt his opponents and fashion a new governing majority. It's an admirable strategy but also a high-risk one, since the "center," however attractive it may be in principle, is often a nebulous political never-never land.

Obama's bet is that at a time of national economic crisis, the country truly wants unity. "I keep telling Republicans, 'This guy has to succeed.' Otherwise, we're doomed," says David Smick, a financial analyst who wrote a prophetic book about the economic crisis called "The World Is Curved." But it remains an open question whether the Republicans will do more than applaud politely when Obama asks for help.

Obama's first move to galvanize this new center was his appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. The Illinois congressman cut his teeth in Bill Clinton's White House, campaigning for welfare reform and other "New Democrat" issues. As a member of the House leadership, he often worried that liberal Democrats might drive the party off a cliff. His job now, it appears, is partly to make sure the White House sets the policy agenda, rather than the party's base.

Obama continued this political reformation in recruiting his Cabinet, which is so centrist it almost resembles a government of national unity. Many of his major appointments have been center-right Democrats drawn from the Clinton administration's roster, such as Hillary Clinton at State, Tim Geithner at Treasury and Eric Holder at Justice. Two key members of the national-security team, Bob Gates at Defense and Jim Jones at the National Security Council, held important positions in the Bush administration.

Obama has tried to reach across traditional red-blue divisions in ways that have genuinely upset some of his supporters. The most striking example was the choice of Rick Warren, a pastor who opposes same-sex marriage, to deliver the inaugural invocation. Gay rights activists who worked hard for Obama's election could reasonably ask: Hey! What about us?

Obama's yen for the middle has been clear as he crafted his economic stimulus package -- especially in his decision to include $300 billion in tax cuts to woo GOP support. After Obama made the tax-cut announcement, one big Republican campaign contributor complained to a GOP friend: "We're sunk. He's taken away our issue."

But political breadth may come at the cost of policy coherence. Are tax breaks really the best way to maintain aggregate demand in an economy that is slowing so sharply? Will frightened businesses and households actually spend the money the government puts in their hands, or will they save it? Won't infrastructure spending and other public investments have a greater stimulative effect than the politically attractive tax cuts? By throwing the GOP a tax-cut bone, Obama is signaling that getting the stimulus package passed quickly, with bipartisan support, is more important than the details.

Obama's game plan is to offer something for everyone in his stimulus program. But the math is scary: The president-elect is proposing to spend about $775 billion to create or save 3 million to 4 million new jobs. That amounts to as much as $260,000 per job. "I hope Obama's jobs are really special," says an investment banker who ran the numbers.

As the days tick down toward inauguration, Obama remains Mr. Cool. His advisers say he makes decisions more confidently than anyone they've ever watched in politics. He's fashioning a new style of governing, as if by instinct. He's rebuilding a center that many analysts thought was impossible. He's heading into the loneliest, most difficult terrain on earth, and he's still making it look easy. But it won't be.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is

© 2009 The Washington Post Company