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For Obama, the center may be too far right

President Obama signs into law a compromise tax bill that extends the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy and middle-class Americans.
President Obama signs into law a compromise tax bill that extends the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy and middle-class Americans. (Marvin Joseph)

Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who disliked the tax deal in large part because of its impact on the deficit, nonetheless said it would benefit Obama politically.

"I didn't agree with the tax bill, but I think it probably did the president a lot of good," he said. "He is seen as somebody in charge and willing to do things that have to be done, in his view. I think . . . it was a win for him."

Obama's approval ratings, however, have not risen as the tax fight has played out in Congress. Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist, said Obama squandered an opportunity to boost his standing by the way he handled the deal.

"He is trying to run back to the middle but neutered the political value of the tax compromise when he attacked Republicans as 'hostage takers' and condemned the agreement as he embraced it," he said. "The president gets no credit for moving to the middle when he confesses he really didn't want to. Instead, he looks smaller and more political."

There is a natural tendency to suggest that Obama is following the course that President Bill Clinton pursued after his party lost Congress in 1994. Using the infamous strategy of triangulation, Clinton positioned himself between conservative Republicans in Congress and the liberals in his own party.

"Triangulation" is a loaded word these days, particularly among many Democrats. White House officials caution, however, that triangulation is not Obama's goal. Which is to say that the president's political North Star will not necessarily be some imagined space in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

"His attitude is, 'We've got goals to move this economy forward, strengthen the middle class, deal with our long-term competitive challenges, and we shouldn't be dogmatic about how we achieve them,' " White House senior adviser David Axelrod said.

"We should be willing to embrace ideas of either party if they advance the goal," he added. "And if they violate principles that we deeply believe in, we should not be willing to compromise. That's his basic view. Not, 'Go out and find me some centrist positions to signify some sort of change in positioning.' That's not what he's doing. And the truth is, the approach that he's taking is completely consistent with who he's always been."

White House officials believe one big message from the midterm elections is a desire on the part of many Americans for the two parties to work together. The looming expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts gave Obama a chance to demonstrate that approach to governing. And it gave him a political boost far earlier than Clinton's after the Democrats' defeat in 1994.

That may or may not set the tone for battles ahead. But given where he was a month ago, Obama has found some breathing room as he prepares for the changes in Congress that will come next month.

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