Obama the centrist?


Today’s topic: Congressional Democrats have insisted on passing the $819-billion stimulus package despite Republicans’ objections, even though Obama has called for bipartisanship on this issue. Can Obama really govern from the center if fulfilling one of his major promises means alienating the GOP right from the start? Previously, Hewitt and Estrich debated closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, whether Obama should investigate the Bush administration, the president’s stance on abortion and stem cell research and the White House’s relationship with the GOP minority in Congress.

A leftist partisan right out of the gate
Point: Hugh Hewitt

Our back-and-forth has been fun as they always are, Susan (to readers: professor Estrich and I have debated in a variety of college and other public settings, and she once rose to my defense in front of an angry crowd of very lefty senior citizens with canes at the Palm Springs Book Festival who seemed intent on mumbling me down). But I think we both know that President Obama doesn’t intend to “govern from the center,” though he’d love to have the reputation for doing that.


The pick of Marine Gen. James Jones for the National Security Council and the decision to keep Secretary Robert Gates at the Department of Defense were indeed very wise appointments that reassured many national security hawks that the new president wouldn’t leave Iraq in a sudden lurch, but Obama’s obvious intention to appeal to the mullahs of Iran in a renewal of the failed policies of many past presidents is deeply worrisome. On the domestic front, we have seen the president’s fierce partisanship break out into open view with his “I won” reply to objections the Republican leadership laid out during its visit to the White House. The stimulus package becomes more obscene with every additional bit of scrutiny, and Obama’s embrace of this porkapalooza that not one Republican and even 11 Democrats couldn’t vote for tells us he is far from any “center” in American politics.

But he did indeed win, and any reader of his two autobiographies ought to expect him to try and push through his long and deeply held convictions, which are from the left side of the Democratic Party’s spectrum of opinions. His first round of judicial nominees will be extremely interesting and also very telling. If he’s truly a centrist, he’ll nominate at least one of George W. Bush’s wrongfully stalled Circuit Court nominees, as Bush did with a Clinton nominee when Bush took office. If Obama is truly a centrist, he’ll avoid our colleagues at USC and Chapman law schools as well as other law schools in the country and select practitioners and sitting state and federal jurists for federal court appointments. If he’s truly a centrist, he’ll insist that the carbon management plans being developed in California work as a national model and genuinely embrace market principles, and he’ll move to make sure that the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act don’t operate to crush private property rights.

The first tenth of the first 100 days has telegraphed an activist, very left domestic agenda and a return to Carter-era foreign policy adventures heavy on symbolism and tolerance for the deeply repressive regimes of the Middle East. Perhaps that will change in the next 90 days. But we’ll know soon enough, because if the Senate passes anything remotely like the House stimulus package, I think we can agree that President Obama’s opening act will best be remembered for, first, his enormous personal charm and the wonderful nature of his family and, second, his decision to kill the new era of bipartisanship in less time than it takes Jack Bauer to solve any national security mess.

Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University and host of a nationally syndicated radio show aired in Southern California on KRLA-AM (870) and in New York on WNYM-AM (970). His two most recent books are “The War Against the West” and “GOP 5.0: Republican Renewal Under President Obama.”

Obama’s going to disappoint plenty of liberals too
Counterpoint: Susan Estrich

First, about Palm Springs. Can you imagine a collection of mumbling senior citizens ever being successful in silencing you, Hugh? Wasn’t going to happen. But they shouldn’t have tried, and it was one of those moments where the issue isn’t left versus right, but manners versus incivility. Let’s hope manners and civility continue to triumph, as I hope they have this week. I have long believed that you can be entertaining without screaming and stimulating without being insulting.


So, to the center. Where it is depends, for the most part, on where you’re standing. I consider myself a centrist on many issues, but don’t tell that to the people who watch Fox News and call me a left-wing liberal -- or to some of the left-wing liberals, who say even worse things.

Hugh, you see Obama’s first 10 days as a triumph of a far-left agenda. Don’t tell that to my friends in the gay community, who will be holding their breaths for some time for an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Don’t tell it to my friends in the peace movement, who have come to realize not only that Obama may not bring the troops home from Iraq any faster than either Hillary Clinton or Bush would have, but also that more servicemen and women will be going to Afghanistan. Don’t tell it to my friends in the family planning movement, who were troubled to see Obama’s willingness to compromise on family planning money to win Republican support.

Be patient, I tell my liberal friends, but not too patient. Believe me, there are and will be those on the left who are going to be frustrated by the slow pace of change on what we (dare I say we?) consider the liberal agenda; frustrated by what we worry is still the underrepresentation of women at the top levels of the administration; and concerned that the fight against terrorism may still go too far in trumping civil liberties. Balance is tricky, and the best sign of it is that both liberals and conservatives can start making lists of what they haven’t gotten. The lists will get longer; that’s one way to define the center.

But when it comes to judges, I have to part company with you, Hugh. As someone who both teaches and practices law, I don’t see that being an academic is a disqualification for a judgeship. I think the choice of Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan as U.S. solicitor general is a superb appointment, and I look forward to supporting her for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court. I don’t see why any particular stalled Bush appointee deserves a lifetime appointment now that the country has voted for change. What I look for in a judge more than ideology is the courage to stand up for what is right even, especially, if it means standing against those who appointed you; the willingness to be the protector of minorities (whether defined by their race, religion or the unpopularity of their views); and the ability to check on the power of government. Oh yes, there’s also the intelligence to understand complex cases and to live on less than big firms pay first-year associates. In my experience, it’s not about ideology, but character -- like so much of life.

Susan Estrich, national campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1987-88, is the Robert Kingsley professor of law and political science at USC. She is a legal and political analyst for Fox News and a syndicated columnist.