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David Shribman: Which Obama will we see next?

Posted: December 17, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 17, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Let’s step back a century. William Howard Taft was in the White House. He came into office literally as the progressive’s progressive, having been Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-selected successor.

He began to initiate more trust-busting suits than even his predecessor. He supported an income tax for corporations and a constitutional amendment permitting an income tax for individuals.

Then came an abrupt change, beginning with his firing of conservationist Gifford Pinchot, a TR acolyte who served as chief forester.

There had been signs suggesting a conservative impulse; Taft had supported the Payne-Aldrich tariff that didn’t approach progressive hopes for tariff reform. By the time his term was up, Taft had drifted far from his progressive moorings.

What’s the lesson? Not that Taft was a traitor to his own ideology, though surely many Republicans considered him one. Not that personal betrayal, which was how Roosevelt regarded Taft’s apostasy, has political consequences, which it does.

Instead, the lesson is that while presidents may be isolated in the White House, they are not frozen in place there. They change. They see life differently from behind the desk in the Oval Office, which incidentally acquired that architecture and name in Taft’s time.

This is instructive as we approach the beginning of Barack Obama’s second term. He’s the same man, but will he be the same president? With eight years in office will he change more than Taft did in four?

Will his transformation as president transform the political landscape or will it reflect transformations in the political landscape? If we agree that we will not recognize his face at the end of two terms — already he looks older, grayer — will we not recognize his presidency either?

We’ve started seeing changes in his approach. In earlier budget fights — which define the confrontations of the Obama era even more than the wars he’s fought or the killing of Osama bin Laden — he stayed close to the White House and held his cards close to his vest. Not this time.

The president is no longer a prisoner of his command post on Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s out, engaged in what Andrew Johnson called a swing around the circle, taking his case on the road and to the people, so much so that Republicans, seeing that his public performances have the air of political rallies, worry that they are hardening his position or, worse, pushing him leftward.

But what may be most important is the outlook that Obama, who has moved from optimism to pessimism to realism, adopts in the first year of his new term. Much of that, of course, will be determined by how he negotiates the path to, or away from, the fiscal cliff.

The latest unemployment figures surely will buoy his spirits, and he seems to have an advantage in his negotiations with GOP leaders, who have seen the polls suggesting that if the country falls off the cliff, the nation will blame them.

But presidential moods are unusually subject to change. Lyndon B. Johnson began his presidency a half century ago as a mourner who doubted his abilities, became within six months a dreamer who broadened the nation’s horizons and eventually became a presidential hermit who dared speak only at military installations, so spooked was he about protesters heckling him for his war in Vietnam even as he took pride in his war against poverty.

A major question is whether Obama 2.0 will move from forcing change, as he did with his economic stimulus and health care plan, to negotiating change. He could go either way.

He might consider the stimulus and Obamacare historic, virtuous victories and, having been re-elected, believe the strong-arm is the maneuver of choice. Or he may believe the struggles he’s had as president suggest there must be a better way to govern.

There are, of course, perils to negotiating and compromising. In an era when we are starved for both, and for the middle road that solves a problem — though there are no guarantees that the middle road is the solution — many Washington insiders turn to the example of 1990, perhaps the greatest modern example of a president changing course.

At that difficult economic juncture, George H.W. Bush, who had vowed not to raise taxes and had challenged Americans to read his lips, acceded to a budget compromise that raised taxes.

This decision, which emerged from 11 days of fraught negotiations in isolated bungalows at Andrews Air Force Base, won the plaudits of conventional Washington and even today is celebrated in those circles more as an act of courage than of concession.

But it is remembered as an unforgivable unconditional surrender by the founding fathers of the new conservatism — and a forbidding cautionary tale as this month’s negotiations continue.

Part of the Obama approach will necessarily be set by his opponents. They began Obama’s first term believing they were in an ideological crisis. Then Obama’s Democrats were torched in 2010 and the talk was of an irresistible conservative counter-revolution.

Now, after the Republicans’ 2012 debacle, the GOP sees itself in a demographic crisis. How the Republicans handle this defeat, and how they plot their return, will be a major factor in the politics of 2013 and the midterm congressional elections of 2014.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.


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