“Republicans in both chambers are polarizing more quickly than Democrats,” said Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “If the Democratic senators have taken one step toward their ideological home, House Democrats have taken two steps, Senate Republicans three steps and House Republicans four steps.”
Obama’s financial rescue effort was largely a continuation of the Bush administration’s policies. He resisted calls to nationalize or break up the big banks; modeled his health-care reform bill after legislation that Republicans had proposed in Congress and Mitt Romney had passed in Massachusetts; extended the Bush tax cuts once and intends to make most of them permanent; signed legislation cutting domestic discretionary spending to its lowest level in decades; and supported the same sort of cap-and-trade plan that John McCain once introduced in the Senate. Obama’s presidency has been ambitious, and it’s been polarizing. But in terms of the policy it has produced, it’s been much closer to the market-based approach of Clinton than the forthright reliance on government of LBJ.
Republicans, however, can and should take partial credit for this. Obama is so moderate in part because the Republicans are so extreme. Politicians are ideological, of course, but they are also opportunistic. And the GOP, in closing ranks against almost every major initiative Obama has attempted, has taken away most of his opportunities to be truly liberal. The fight to get to 60 votes in the Senate has ensured, over and over, that Obama must aim his legislation at either the most conservative Democrats or the most moderate Republicans. In this, Obama has only been as liberal as Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson and Republican Sen. Scott Brown have permitted him to be. And that’s not very liberal.
That’s left Obama as a moderate president in an immoderate time. For progressives, that moderation has been repeatedly frustrating. For conservatives, it’s been obscured by a caricature of the president as a free-enterprise-hating socialist. And for the White House, it’s been a calculated strategy. We’ll know in November whether it was the right one.