Meacham: Obama's No Radical

First, a bit of personal history. I am a Southerner, a churchgoer, and a swing voter in presidential elections. I believe America is a center-right nation. I am at work on a biography of George H.W. Bush. I pay plenty of taxes already, thanks, and I have no automatic faith in government's capacity to solve problems. I share these details to make clear that I am not a reflexive lefty. Far from it.

That said, I hope President Obama does not take the conventional message from the Democrats' drubbing in Massachusetts (where they lost a Senate seat they'd held since 1952, the year John Kennedy beat Henry Cabot Lodge): go to the center, Mr. President. Turn right before it is too late—or, at the very least, stop trying to do so much. Even my friend David Brooks of The New York Times—a columnist whom Obama reads very closely—believes the president tried to change the equation of American life in favor of too much government, too radically and too quickly.

To me, however, the evidence fails to support the contention that the Barack Obama who governed from Jan. 20, 2009, to Jan. 20, 2010—the day after Scott Brown's defeat of Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race—was a Chicago Che or even an unreconstructed Great Society liberal. Obama is essentially a centrist. His world view cannot be easily consigned to the familiar categories of left and right. In fact, those categories have been obsolescent since George W. Bush effectively nationalized the banks and Obama won the nomination on a center-right cultural platform. No matter how simplistic competing cable networks try to make things, when you have a Republican president behaving like a European socialist and a Democratic president who opposes gay marriage and has added troops to Afghanistan, you are living in a volatile ideological age.

And yet many Americans—or at least many politically engaged Americans, who are the ones who count most in such matters—appear to think Obama has been a revolutionary who is only now learning his lesson. In an interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC News, Sen. Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat, said, "There's going to be a tendency on the part of our people to be in denial about all this … If you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up." Bayh continued, "The only way we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates. Whenever you have just the furthest-left elements of the Democratic Party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country, that's not going to work too well." It is a neat and familiar storyline. But that does not make it accurate.

Yes, the deficit is too great, our debt is too deep, unemployment is too high, and the health-care debate has been confusing and counterproductive. And yes, the stimulus bill added to that deficit—but a great deal of the package cut taxes, and even conservative economists agree it has helped (and many liberals think it was too small, so there is a big damned-if-you-do element at work here).

A few counterintuitive points: Obama was not about to socialize American medicine. The president's health-care plan was to the right of where Richard Nixon was on the issue more than 35 years ago. The bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit automakers either began under the previous administration or seemed essential to averting greater economic calamity. (A tough sell, these preventive wars. "It's always hard in politics to make the case that things would have been worse if this or that had not happened," Obama counselor David Axelrod told me last week.) On taxes and discretionary spending, the president has been to the right of center. He wants to end the Bush tax cuts in order to return rates to Reagan-era levels. And he has been more successful at trimming discretionary spending than George W. Bush was late in his reign. Unemployment is grim, but presidents have historically proved unable to do much about joblessness in the short run unless they go even further than Obama went in the stimulus—which, given Republican opposition, hardly seems practical even if it were desirable.

This is not an apology for the president. He has grandly failed so far in doing what presidents must do, which is to lead the nation emotionally as well as rationally. It would be great if politics were fact-based, but it is not, and it is surely not nuance-based. What works in a classroom or a think tank does not work on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Obama sometimes seems to be running the Brookings Institution, not the country.

Like all of us, Obama has the vices of his virtues. He is cool and steady, but can seem cold and remote. He is thoughtful and thorough, but can appear eggheady and out of it. He appeals to the intellect, but often fails to make the visceral case for something. The question now is whether his presidency has simply hit one of those unavoidable grim moments when nothing seems to go right (such moments come to every White House) or whether a tactical shift could improve his chances of accomplishing more of what he wants to do.

One thing Obama could do without much pain would be to learn from the rhetorical clarity and practical flexibility of a president whose example he has often considered: Ronald Reagan. In legend, Reagan was a model of consistency, a leader who campaigned against government and the Soviet Union, stuck to his principles, carried the day at home and abroad, and became a rightly revered figure.

There is much truth in this view, but a careful look back reveals, unsurprisingly, a more complex and contradictory story. Reagan genuinely believed that less government and lower taxes would make the country a better place. And so, in the summer of 1981, on a small outdoor table at his ranch in the mountains near Santa Barbara, Reagan signed the Kemp-Roth tax bill that lowered marginal income-tax rates. He was so happy that he kicked his leg in the air.

That Reagan then raised taxes in three successive years is the kind of complicating detail that a man like Obama knows, and from which he might draw some guidance, or at least reassurance. The lesson of Reagan's record on taxes and spending is not that he was a hypocrite but that he was a pragmatist. He knew the world is a complicated place, things never quite work out the way you want them to, and you should do what you can when you can.

Then and now, the country knew that Reagan changed the conversation (and the tax rates), and they appreciated the admixture of conviction and flexibility with which he made a difference in his time. The roots of the appreciation grew not from the economic numbers of the early 1980s—numbers that were dismal—but from Reagan's clarity of mission and his capacity to connect with a broad swath of the public.

Clarity of mission has not been an Obama long suit. He should rethink his aversion to soundbites. Jesus spoke in them, and his words have aged rather well. (The Sermon on the Mount is nothing if not user-friendly rhetoric.) Reagan succeeded in no small part because Americans trusted that he was committed to goals with which they generally agreed, even if the details were contentious. Taxes were too high, and communism should go.

I am not arguing that Obama has tried to do too much, a trope that seems unmoored from the reality of the office. He could, however, stand to think about a soundbite or two (or three) that would give the country a clear sense of where he wants to leave us after his hour upon the stage.

There is no intellectual shame in pithiness. "The only thing we have to fear," "Ask not," "I have a dream," "Tear down this wall" all spoke to deep and complex forces in the life of the nation and of the world. Obama has yet to add to his own tag to the American story. As soon as he does, the bond he needs will begin to form, and this bond can make all the difference, if only once or twice in a presidency, for it's what encourages voters to extend a White House the political credit needed to get something done. No bond, no trust; no trust, no credit; and no credit, no progress.

Obama is no Gipper. He would be the first to tell you that. But there is hope. The last president who averaged a 57 percent job-approval rating for his first year? Ronald Reagan.

With Andrew Romano