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The Fighting Conciliator

The changes made in the proposal to pick up votes from a few Republican senators made it less effective than the House bill. Programs that would spur the economy -- aid to fiscally ailing states, more help for the needy, spending on health, education and the environment -- were cut back. Kept in were tax cuts of limited stimulative value that the Senate had added.

Nonetheless, Obama staved off defeat, and the Senate bill is better than it might have been. A House-Senate conference should fix some of the inequities in the compromise, whose critics can use Obama's own arguments to explain their insistence on a better final product.

But fighting for his recovery program does not preclude Obama's efforts to ease the cultural conflicts that have divided the country since the late 1960s. If Obama is happy to wage war on right-wing economic theories and overpaid Wall Street executives, he does not want to pick gratuitous fights with those who are moderate or conservative on cultural and religious matters.

Obama's own cultural instincts run right down the middle of the road. His politics are more neo-Truman than neo-Woodstock, more compatible with "It's a Wonderful Life" than "Easy Rider."

He supports abortion rights but argues for fewer abortions. He supports religious liberty but thinks religion has a legitimate public role. He wants to fix but not abolish George W. Bush's faith-based program. MTV loyalists love him, but he models a family life more likely to play on the Disney Channel.

So Obama's decision to fight Republicans on the stimulus bill doesn't mean he's lost his conciliatory instincts. It means he's neither a chump nor a wimp. There are rank-and-file cultural conservatives willing to join Obama to end the feuds of the 1960s. But Washington conservatives, insisting that tax cuts are the one and only important matter in American life, are stuck in a 1980s time warp.

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