At some point before midnight, Barack Obama will likely put his name to an austerity plan passed last night by Congress, with just hours to spare before the United States reaches its borrowing limit, a deadline that would have meant the country eventually defaulting on its debt.
Today’s occasion will reflect a mixed accomplishment for what seems to be two Barack Obamas occupying the Oval Office simultaneously. It will be a moment of shameful capitulation for the man many Democrats expected to be a champion of the left, and a solid, if bloody, victory for the one-time outsider who has come to see himself as the guardian, above all, of the capital’s establishment consensus.
The first Obama came to Washington with the goal of leaving a long-term mark on policy priorities, and spent his first two years reaping as many liberal gains as he could get through a House and Senate under Democratic control. He enacted a controversial health-care bill and a stimulus package that would make what Obama has described as transformative investments in green energy, digital medical records, and high-speed rail. The short-term politics of all this looked bad, and the White House often knew it: the health bill was tough to sell, and like the most prominent stimulus projects, seemed to offer little in the way of immediate job creation, which was clearly voters’ priorities. Obama fought on and claimed his victories, even if they earned him little goodwill with voters.
But after Republican victories last autumn, Obama tucked away the ambitious agenda. This year’s Obama seems to have few, if any, pronounced policy priorities; he negotiated a tax-cut extension that dismayed many in his party, and has embraced a series of halfway measures on Afghanistan. This week’s debt deal grew out of months’ worth of negotiation that Obama willingly allowed to take place on policy terrain defined by Republicans — that the national debt was the country’s biggest economic priority, and that this was a time for cuts, not new spending. Obama’s original insistence that any deal include new taxes on the rich was brushed aside by Republicans, some of whom seemed to cheer the prospect of default.
The new Obama seemed oddly placid about this. Obama’s response to the nihilism of the Tea Party has been to expect credit for merely believing in anything, and for working constructively towards something. His aides like nothing more than to see him praised in the press as “the only adult in the room,” in contrast with the opposition’s tantrums. Failing to get his way — while not complaining about it — seems to suit Obama’s public character.
The buzzwords have changed accordingly, as promises of “change” have been replaced by a perpetual celebration of “compromise”.
Obama’s aides have been reassuring Democratic allies that polls show that next year’s swing voters respond well to such consensus-building. The message is clear: if the ambitious liberal Barack Obama is ever going to govern again, the first priority needs to be re-election.
Sasha Issenberg is Monocle’s Washington correspondent.
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