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President Obama's Third-Way Express

And in the next phase of his security efforts, Obama hopes to bring civil libertarians and moderate conservatives to the same table to work out rules on detainees. These would be more protective of their rights than Bush's were but tougher than the ACLU might have in mind.

Obama's center-left two-step is also on display in the domestic sphere. He is pushing hard for programs progressives have sought for years -- and, in the case of health care, for decades. But on the economic crisis, he has tacked carefully to the center, pushing aside calls for nationalizing the banks and working closely with the financial establishment to revive the economy.

And there's subtlety within his subtlety: Obama wants a more regulated financial market, but he would not disrupt the basic arrangements of American capitalism. If Obama has his way, investment bankers will make a bit less money and pay more in taxes, but they'll continue to be rich.

The establishment Obama is trying to build would make the country better -- more equal, more just and more conscious of the government's constitutional obligations. The far right is being isolated, and Republicans are simply lost.

But establishments have a habit of becoming too confident in their ability to manipulate people and events, and too certain of their own moral righteousness. Obama's political and substantive gifts are undeniable. What he needs to realize are the limits of his own mastery.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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