The titans of the private sector say President Barack Obama is antibusiness. Many progressives say he coddles business. How does the administration manage to pull that off?
The "center" is said to be the most comfortable place in American politics. But this assumes that the center is stable, that most people on either end of the philosophical continuum give would-be centrist politicians the benefit of the doubt, and that voters actually care whether someone is "centrist" or not.
Not one of these assumptions works. The political center is a strange and wild place because many who fall into it have vastly different combinations of beliefs. No politician gets the benefit of the doubt these days. And the people who care passionately about a politician's ideology are not in the center, but fall to its left or right.
This explains why Obama's actual position—he's probusiness but thinks it should be more tightly regulated than it was in the last decade or so—has little to do with how his views are perceived.
The right pronounces him a "socialist" because of his sympathy for regulation, his belief that the rich should pay higher taxes and his occasional criticisms of Wall Street or the oil industry. The left declares him a sellout because of his efforts early on to get Wall Street on its feet, because it wishes the financial reform bill enacted last week were even stronger, and because the president didn't fight hard for a "public option" in the health care bill.
As for those who are in the center, they mainly see high unemployment, sluggish growth, and future deficits. If unemployment were at 5 percent, growth were roaring, and, as a result, the deficit were shrinking, these voters wouldn't care whether he was a socialist, a sellout, or a sellout socialist. They'd simply be happier.
But this should not be seen as an alibi for Obama as the moderate, misunderstood progressive, though this is more or less what he is. The president's most important tasks include persuading the public that he's doing the right thing and improving the standing of the politicians who support him in doing it. Here is where Obama has fallen down on the job.
No wonder Democratic members of Congress were furious when Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, blithely proclaimed that the Democrats might lose the House of Representatives in this fall's elections.
Of course what Gibbs said was perfectly accurate, and Democrats know it. What enraged them is that a spokesman for Obama could calmly say what he did without warning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she was about to be put on the endangered species list, and without talking to them first about the political implications of his statement.
There's a good case to be made for alerting Americans to the prospect of a Republican House majority and what it could mean. But House members wanted to be in on this strategy—if it was a strategy.
In truth, Gibbs's comment was just a match tossed into the dry underbrush of a parched forest. The underlying problem is that Obama's allies who have given him a chance to be a great president by passing health-care reform, financial reform, and a stimulus bill—all at considerable political risk to themselves—rightly feel they have been left undefended by a White House more interested in the president's long-term standing than in their own survival.
Obama has allowed himself less than four months to repair this damage. Doing so requires him to redefine the meaning of political moderation and to place himself and his party squarely within its ambit.
As long as the political center is measured as the halfway point between Republicans such as Sen. Jon Kyl, who don't think they have to pay for big tax cuts for the rich, and a moderate progressivism of Obama's sort, the entire national discussion will be tilted toward conservatives: Far right plus center-left equals center-right.
And as along as Obama doesn't define "Obamaism," his critics will do the defining for him. Right now, it's a collection of real achievements without a strong underlying rationale. It's an expansion of government without an explanation for how this modestly larger government will enhance both private well-being and private-sector growth.
If Obama doesn't want to be seen as a socialist who coddles business, he needs to be more persuasive in telling Americans who he actually is.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).