On both economic and national-security fronts,President Barack Obama is giving ground and crossing swords with political allies.
Caught in the worst economic downturn in generations, Obama has had to temper his stance on trade and lower his expectations for trimming charitable tax breaks for the wealthy and for taxing greenhouse-gas polluters.
He’s not the first president to be pulled toward the political center after being elected. But the recession and two wars abroad put him in a particularly tough spot — with smaller margins for error.
With the deficit mushrooming, lawmakers in both parties are worrying more and more about rivers of government red ink. Yet, Obama’s efforts to try to modestly pare back funds for some pet Democratic projects in the name of fiscal discipline have drawn sharp criticism from some of his otherwise staunch liberal allies.
He frequently complains he inherited a $1.2 trillion deficit fromPresident George W. Bush.
But Obama’s presidency, not yet four months old, has put the government on track for a $1.8 trillion shortfall.
That’s almost 13 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — a level not seen since 1945. By contrast, the 2008 deficit — for the budget year that ended last September — was a then-record $454.8 billion.
Internationally, Obama reversed course and is seeking to block the court-ordered release of detainee-abuse photos, revived military trials for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and is markedly increasing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan “could well be Obama’s Vietnam, eventually,” said James Thurber, a political scientist atAmerican University.
Still, even though Obama may be irritating liberal purists on both national security and domestic policy, he has no real choice but to move toward the middle. “Most presidents do that once they start governing. Otherwise, you don’t get much done,” Thurber said.
Some of Obama’s steps as he seeks support across a broad political spectrum, including trying to recycle spending cuts pushed by Bush and revamping Bush’s military commissions, have put the White House on the spot.
Asked whether Obama wasn’t retracing some steps taken by his predecessor, especially on treatment of terrorism suspects, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “It’s a little hard to answer a question about why somebody thinks we’re just like George Bush,” especially at a time when former Vice President Dick Cheney has been trying to show how unlike Bush Obama is.
“I’ll let people decide what part of the spectrum they think we land on,” Gibbs said.
Right now, Obama has been coming under a fair amount of not-so-friendly fire.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ripped his proposal to eliminate a $400 million annual program to reimburse local governments for housing jailed illegal immigrants, saying it “deprives communities of critical funding forpublic safety services.”
As to Obama’s proposal to phase out federal payments to farmers with sales exceeding $500,000 a year, “That won’t go anywhere,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he thought that taxing employee health benefits ought to be on the table during the health care debate, a position opposed vigorously by candidate Obama.
Obama talked tough about protecting U.S. workers against overseas competition as he ran for president, even promising to push to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. In office, though, he’s had little to say on the subject.
Obama trade representative Ron Kirk recently announced that the administration planned to finish up outstanding Bush-era free trade agreements with U.S. allies Colombia, South Korea and Panama. Obama has yet to give a speech on trade.
Rob Shapiro, a former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, said Obama’s winning of congressional support for the $787 billion economic stimulus plan soon after taking office, mostly on terms he wanted, remains a major achievement.
The next crucial test will be whether Obama can make progress on health care overhaul, a signature proposal for his first term, said Shapiro, now with NDN, a centrist think tank formerly known as the New Democratic Network. Some of the other issues matter less, since presidents rarely get everything they want even from a Congress controlled by their own party, he said.
“Obama calls himself a pragmatist. That often ends up with fairly centrist policies,” Shapiro said. “In the end, the progressives, the left in Congress, will support the president even on getting a half loaf in health care rather than a full loaf,” he added.
Stephen J. Cimbala, a political science professor at Penn State University, Brandywine Campus, said Obama is a quick study, showing “political shrewdness and an ability to adapt to conditions and circumstances on the run.”
Cimbala said Obama’s present course reflects “the difference between running for office and being president.”