An Uncompromising President

The media consensus is that Barack Obama’s “tax compromise” signals a pivot to the center, a transformation of the president from partisan fighter to centrist problem-solver. Some conservatives even seem to believe Obama is someone they can now do business with.

But Obama has not suddenly become Bill Clinton circa 1995, triangulating and declaring that “the era of big government is over.” There is little indication that the post-shellacking Obama will be much less ideologically rigid or politically partisan than the Obama of the last two years.

Numerous pundits have remarked upon how much Obama has preserved the policies of George W. Bush. Besides the two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for all taxpayers, Obama has continued Bush policies on warrantless wiretapping and by keeping Guantanamo Bay Detention Center open. 

Other movements to the right by Obama include freezing salaries for federal employees, support for a temporary reduction of the payroll tax, and securing a trade deal with South Korea.

All of this has the Left up in arms. Newspaper headline writers used words like “angry,” “fury,” and “rebellion” to describe the Left’s reaction to Obama’s tax compromise announcement. “Whatever is going on inside the White House,” Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column last week, “from the outside it looks like moral collapse – a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.”

But the Left’s anger is unfounded. Unlike Bill Clinton’s move to the center after Republican victories in the 1994 midterm elections, Barack Obama has no desire to compromise. He only agreed to the tax compromise because he was forced to do it. He had no other choice. The same can be said on Gitmo and a host of other issues.

As Dick Morris, the architect of Clinton’s triangulation strategy, said in response to a question about whether Obama was triangulating, “There is a big difference between moving to the center and fleeing to the center.”

If Obama were truly interested in forging a centrist path, he would not be indicating a desire to enact deeply unpopular policies, like the cap and tax regulations he wants to establish through the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory process. And if conciliation were really what Obama had in mind, he would not have reversed a March decision to allow oil exploration off the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico, which Obama did in early December.

Looking ahead, it seems likely that Obama will look for ways to mollify his angry base, by, for instance, taking up immigration amnesty or by repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

As with the looming EPA decision, we can expect Obama to try and enact through executive fiat what the Democrats can’t get passed through Congress.

Certainly congressional Democrats, by re-electing Pelosi, Reid and Co. to its leadership, have signaled that they aren’t interested in moving to the center. Their determination not to compromise was confirmed with their vote last Thursday to reject the tax deal.  

And it’s not as if the tax fight is over. In his press conference, Obama said that he welcomed a fight on raising taxes on America’s entrepreneurs and achievers. “I’m as opposed to the high-end tax cuts today as I’ve been for years,” Obama said. “When they expire in two years, I will fight to end them.” Clearly, Obama has a lot of fight left in him.

Obama’s combative tone made it clear that conciliation and outreach are not on the horizon. Among other insults and accusations, Obama compared Republicans to “hostage-takers,” called incoming House Speaker John Boehner a “bomb-thrower” and said that he is “itching for a fight [with Republicans] on a whole range of issues.”

Obama has never liked the idea of compromise. In the epilogue to his autobiography “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama recounts a conversation he had with a long time friend, a Northwestern University professor and civil rights activist.

Obama approaches him for a letter of recommendation to law school, but the friend wants to know what Obama intends to do with his law degree. Obama mentions his interest in running for political office.

His professor friend cautions Obama, saying, “As a rule, both law and politics required compromise…not just on issues, but on more fundamental things—your ideals and values.”

“’It’s not that compromise is inherently wrong,’” Obama’s friend says in explaining why he never ran for office. “‘I just didn’t find it satisfying. And the one thing I’ve discovered as I get older is that you have to do what is satisfying to you.’”

Obama then writes, “Twenty years later, I think back on that conversation and appreciate my friend’s words more than I did at the time. For I am getting to an age where I have a sense of what satisfies me, and although I am perhaps more tolerant of compromise on the issues than my friend was, I know that my satisfaction is not to be found in the glare of television cameras or the applause of the crowd.”

Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, Obama makes it fairly clear that in deciding to enter politics he was determined not to compromise on his deeply-held ideals and values. It’s the same determination he made clear last January when he responded to pundits who questioned the political wisdom of pursuing the healthcare overhaul after a stinging election loss in Massachusetts with, “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.”

“To my Republican friends,” Obama said as he concluded his press conference last week, “I’m looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years.”

And what do you do on the “field of competition”? You don’t compromise. You try to defeat your opponents and win. And Republicans who think otherwise are dreaming.