Obama Right in the Middle

Who is our President? Is it Obama the liberal or Obama the centrist? To me, the answer is as obvious as it is displeasing to both the hard left and hard right: Barack Obama is a pragmatic man of the center-left.
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The Obama White House must consider last week to have been a pretty good one. When the president is attacked personally in the same week both from the right, by former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, and from the left, by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, he must figure he's in the right place politically and substantively.

Late last week, Noonan made a rather personal attack on Obama for what she described as his iconic bow to the emperor of Japan. This, she concluded, emblemized Obama's weakness as president. Then came the witty and acerbic Dowd a day or so later, noting that President Obama can often be more interested in wooing opponents than tending to those who put themselves on the line for him.

Meanwhile, here are the facts and results in the reality-land called the White House:

President Obama returned from his trip to Asia after obtaining some concessions from the Chinese on global warming for the first time ever. And then China also indicated it would join Russia, for the first time ever, to support increased pressures on Iran to cease its development of a nuclear bomb. Funny how that respectful bow to an emperor seemed more important to some conservative Republican critics of Obama than these concrete, albeit preliminary, results of his trip to the Far East.

Then on Tuesday night, after many weeks of deliberations, Obama made the tough decision on Afghanistan to send 30,000 additional U.S. GIs (plus, he hopes, additional troops from NATO countries). But he made that decision not, as Dowd might suggest, in order to woo opponents, but rather based on a careful assessment of facts and a variety of opinions from elected officials from both sides of the aisle as well as experts civilian and military -- and then he exercised his best judgment. The mission, which he clearly spelled out in his sober speech Tuesday night, is to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to a rogue, Taliban-controlled state -- one that provides safe harbor to al Qaeda and thus increases the risks of a terrorist attack on the U.S.

Most of Obama's traditional anti-war Democratic Party base is probably unhappy with his speech and his decision.

Yet this is the same Barack Obama who banned torture and closed Gitmo, pleasing the left; but refused to prosecute Bush administration officials for war crimes or even to support a Truth Commission, offending the left. This is the same Obama who has led this nation closer than it has ever been in its history to a national health insurance system, pleasing the left; while indicating he is willing to give up a government-run public option, if that's what it takes to pass the bill, thus offending the left.

So which is it? The weak Obama who bows to an emperor? Or the Obama who is willing to use increased military strength to protect the U.S. from another Sept. 11? Is it Obama the liberal, who believes in the FDR-embedded principle of government as a friend, not an enemy, and national health insurance as a follow-on to Social Security and Medicare? Or Obama the centrist, who fundamentally believes in the bedrock role of the private sector in a free-market economy -- i.e., the Obama who is ready to pass a national health insurance plan that relies almost entirely on the private insurance industry (even if a public option were included)?

To me, the answer is as obvious as it is displeasing to both the hard left and hard right: Barack Obama was during his campaign, and remains to this day, a pragmatic man of the center-left.

I wasn't an Obama supporter during the primaries, and I don't agree with him on every issue. For example, my gut favors getting out of Afghanistan entirely, based on past history and too many memories of Vietnam. But I am impressed with this president's careful and thoughtful decision-making, so I am going to trust him and support his decision on Afghanistan and hope and pray he has made the right choice.

Now comes the next battle. Purist liberals will again be angry when the president supports a health care bill without the public option, as he must, since it will be the only way national health insurance can get enacted into law this year. But as I've written before, I'll bet not one of those brave liberals who insist it is better to do without any bill than one without a public option have been forced to take a sick child to a public hospital emergency room because they couldn't afford health insurance, or have risked bankruptcy -- or even death -- for the same reason.

Such purist liberals, who see the good as the enemy of the perfect, may not be salvageable. I only hope that thoughtful and fair-minded conservative Republicans in the Congress will give President Obama a chance to work with them and pragmatic progressive Democrats to create the bipartisan consensus that he and most Americans -- left, right and center -- truly want in the months and years ahead.

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics is Destroying America.

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