Why Obama Must Avoid "Centrist" Solutions with the GOP and Set a Bold Course for Washington to Follow

Election '16

Appearing on CNN, retiring Senator Joe Lieberman gave voice to the conventional wisdom: "In my opinion the last two years, 2011-12, have been the least productive and most partisan and uncompromising in my 24 years here." For Lieberman, like much of establishment D.C. -- both political and media -- being a "moderate" or a "centrist" or a "pragmatist" is synonymous with the ability to "get things done." Yet, according to the AP, this year's election resulted in "a thinning of pragmatic, centrist veterans in both parties," and that "among those leaving are some of the Senate's most pragmatic lawmakers, nearly half the House's centrist Blue Dog Democrats and several moderate House Republicans."

As William Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center put it, "This movement away from the center, at a time when issues have to be resolved from the middle, makes it much more difficult to find solutions to major problems."

It's the sort of boilerplate quote that's found in virtually every piece about our current political landscape, a sentiment so common that we barely even notice it anymore. But we should, because it's also the real problem in a nutshell: the assumption, unexamined and taken as gospel by most of Washington, that the solutions to our major problems are somehow to be magically found by splitting the difference in the middle. It's the result of an old left-right way of thinking that is increasingly outdated. Arthur Schlesinger, who coined the phrase "the vital center" more than half a century ago to describe the common ground between fascism and communism, later lamented that the phrase had been reduced to signify nothing more than the "middle of the road." In fact, many of the problems we're facing were created by just the sort of bipartisan compromise rhapsodized about by much of the media. For instance, as proof of how much less "moderate" -- and thus further away from "solutions" -- the Senate is supposedly going to be, the AP cites the victory of "one of the most liberal members," Elizabeth Warren, over "moderate Scott Brown."

But moderates like Scott Brown are why we're still looking for a way to ensure that no banks are too big to fail, and that taxpayers will never again be on the hook for the gambling of our financial institutions. In fact, after burnishing his "moderate" credentials by voting for the 2010 Wall Street reform bill, "moderate Scott Brown" set about weakening its provisions and opening up loopholes for the banks. It's why Simon Johnson wrote that Brown was sometimes referred to as an "ATM for the bankers."

It's just one example of many, from the Iraq War to the repeal of Glass-Steagall, of how dangerous it is to equate bipartisan agreement with good policy. All those "moderates" whose departure Lieberman and many in the media are now mourning were there in the last Congress, and yet, as Lieberman notes, it was the "least productive and most partisan and uncompromising" Congress he'd ever seen.

What we need isn't faux pragmatism, but real principles -- like being devoted to protecting taxpayers instead of being devoted to ensuring that the banks can continue to act like casinos. And yet, somehow, it's Elizabeth Warren who represents a threat to finding solutions? The bold leadership we need from Harry Reid is to resist being browbeaten by the financial industry and its well-funded lobbyists (many of whom will no doubt be former "centrist" colleagues), and to put Elizabeth Warren on the committee where she can do the most good: the banking committee.

This is the time for both Congress and the White House to be bold. The beginning of a new Congress, right after an election and as far as we can be from the midterms, is the best time to go big. After the 2004 election, in which President Bush was reelected with almost exactly the same margin and vote totals as President Obama, Bush declared, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Unfortunately, he happened to spend it on many wrong things (helped out, of course, by many "moderate" Democrats). But that was exactly the right attitude -- and one President Obama should adopt. As Bill Maher put it, "There's no third term, Mr. President, so you may as well throw caution to the wind, 'cause it's not like we're using it to produce energy." Because "if not now, when?"

President Obama still has the opportunity to be a transformational president, but only if he spends his second term finally unleashing the audacity that propelled his presidency in the beginning. With Obama's final campaign now over, whatever excuses the cautious, thinly-sliced political calculations provided for inaction on many important causes no longer apply. For example: gun control. After each mass shooting, the president always speaks beautifully -- but very generally -- about the issue of violence. "We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence," he said at the memorial following the Tucson shooting. "We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future." But there have been more than 60 multiple shootings since Tucson.

And yet, the only major thing Obama did regarding access to guns in his first term was to actually increase it, signing a bill to allow people to bring loaded firearms into national parks and on Amtrak trains. During the campaign, the issue was only brought up in the second debate, in which the president said, "Part of [the solution] is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced." Which, of course, caused the NRA to go into overdrive, running ads about Obama's Supreme Court appointments. But, as HuffPost's Jennifer Bendery wrote at the time, "the fact that the NRA is bashing Obama on his court appointments, and not on his legislative record, reflects the reality that he has done next to nothing on gun control since becoming president." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sponsor of the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, plans on reintroducing it in the new Congress. Support from the White House would be one way to "lessen the prospects of violence in the future."

Another issue on which it would be great to see stepped-up second-term leadership is the drug war. Back in July, Marc Ambinder wrote that, according to his sources, President Obama was going to "pivot" to the drug war in his second term. "From his days as a state senator in Illinois," wrote Ambinder, "Obama has considered the Drug War to be a failure, a conflict that has exacerbated the problem of drug abuse, devastated entire communities, changed policing practices for the worse, and has led to a generation of young children, disproportionately black and minority, to grow up in dislocated homes, or in none at all." If that's true, the president has been pretty successful at keeping his beliefs about the drug war to himself. As HuffPost's Nick Wing wrote in July, Obama's "recent policy moves have not shown a particular interest in reflecting that worry" -- policy moves like a Justice Department crackdown on medical marijuana and continued prosecutions for possession.

But now that Colorado and Washington state have legalized pot, the president will have a significant opportunity to "pivot" to acting on his belief that the drug war has been a failure. "Since those anti-drug war principles are now enshrined in Colorado's constitution, only the feds can stop this Rocky Mountain state -- if they so choose," writes David Sirota. "But will they?" Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette recently introduced a bill that would exempt states from the federal ban on possessing or using small amounts of marijuana. Presidential support of this bill could be the beginning of the end of America's disastrous drug war that has destroyed so many lives.

In fact, President Obama has it in his power to stop the ongoing destruction of many of those lives. In the past, he has spoken out against mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and the disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine. These policies have helped increase the number of federal prisoners to over 200,000, and the number of Americans under some form of correctional supervision to six million, which Adam Gopnik calls "the moral scandal of American life."

And yet President Obama has pardoned only 22 people so far, as Melissa Harris-Perry noted in an open letter to the turkey Obama pardoned for Thanksgiving. "Cobbler," she wrote, "maybe you can scratch out a letter to the White House asking the president to show as much mercy to humans in his second term as he has shown to poultry in his first." And of those few Obama has pardoned, only one was actually still in jail at the time. At this point in his presidency, George W. Bush had pardoned 37 people. FDR pardoned 600 by the end of his first term and 2,800 over his three terms.

There were certain issues on which, as Jonathan Turley put it, the administration went into "radio silence" in the hope of solidifying the support of his base, only to backtrack after the election. One of these is privacy. Last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced a digital privacy bill that would protect people's email against warrantless intrusions by authorities. But soon after Election Day, the Justice Department massaged the bill to allow for 22 federal agencies to access your email, Facebook content, tweets and more, all without a warrant. These changes have led Leahy to say he won't support his own bill, scheduled to come up for a vote this Thursday.

Whatever happens with the bill, the changes don't bode well for the idea that the administration, now freed from reelection fears of being called "soft on crime," might want the creation of modernized civil liberties safeguards to be one of its legacies. "The control of the security establishment over both White House and Congress appears now completely unchecked and unabashed," writes Turley. "After securing reelection, President Obama wasted no time in returning to his prior record of disregarding privacy and civil liberties concerns."

Technology is, of course, changing our political landscape. And as the fight over digital privacy shows, old left-right paradigms like being "soft" or "tough" on crime are inadequate for the challenges we face in this new frontier. This is true in foreign policy, as well, as the issue of how and where to use drones becomes more and more important. This is yet another issue where a second term presents Obama with the opportunity to lead. Clearly, the ability to attack using unmanned weapons and without putting American personnel in harm's way isn't going away. But without bold leadership, some of our core principles might -- at the same time that we are undermining our long-term security.

According to the New York Times, in the weeks before the election, the White House was hastily writing"explicit rules" for targeted killing, just in case Romney won -- since the administration didn't want a Republican to enjoy the same unaccountable power it has given itself during its first term. "There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands," said one source.

However, mounting evidence shows their confidence in their own use of "the levers" might be unwarranted. For instance, because of the use of drones in Yemen, "Al Qaeda is actually expanding" there, says Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America's War in Arabia. As one Yemeni told Johnsen, "Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for Al Qaeda."

To James Traub, "there is a real danger that around the world drone warfare will come to be seen as the dark arts of the Obama administration, as torture and 'rendition' were for President George W. Bush." He suggests that, as a New Year's resolution, Obama "level with the American people about what it is that drones should and should not do, who they do and do not target, where they should and should not be used."

Obama has ended one war (Iraq) and pledged to end another one (Afghanistan) by the end of 2014, but to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, this expanding and seemingly limitless use of drones represents "America's Third War" -- one that, unlike the other two, Obama has greatly expanded. This one is his, not Bush's. And it's one that has killed nearly 3,400 people so far, 13 percent of whom are civilians. "What was once considered an immediate response to an exceptional threat to the United States," writes Zenko, "is now a permanent and institutionalized feature of U.S. foreign policy."

Obviously, there are many challenges facing our country today, but they are not going to be solved through middle-of-the-road, split-the-difference compromises. That's how many of the challenges were created, or allowed to grow unfettered, in the first place. Big problems require big solutions. I'm not suggesting that compromise is never needed, but compromise is the final step in a negotiation, not the first one. The first one is for leaders with strong convictions to fight for them. If gun violence is an issue you're passionate about then, like Senator Feinstein, you'll be more likely to keep at it until you find allies across the aisle. Same with Senator-elect Warren's passion for creation of a banking system that doesn't take advantage of the middle class.

The starting point for the incoming Congress and the returning president should be rooted in principle. The pragmatic solutions will follow.

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