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Is Obama seizing the political center?

By Julian E. Zelizer, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Obama has governed close to the center of the Democratic Party
  • He says he may be in position to take the debt-cutting issue away from the GOP
  • He says Obama could follow in Clinton's footsteps in marginalizing GOP
  • Zelizer: Obama risks further economic malaise by cutting government spending

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- President Barack Obama has always been a lot more like President Bill Clinton than many of his supporters like to think.

Even though some Republicans have attempted to paint the president as a left-wing radical who is intent on bringing socialism to American shores, the reality is that Obama is very much a product of the 1980s and '90s era of liberalism, when numerous Democrats shifted to the center in an effort to stay relevant.

On economic policies, Obama has continually surrounded himself with moderate, market-oriented liberals such as Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. The president has continued President George W. Bush's policies that shored up Wall Street following the financial meltdown of 2008.

Notwithstanding Republican rhetoric, his health care plan, which resembled then-Gov. Mitt Romney's program in Massachusetts, was far less government-centered than what previous Democrats had proposed. Indeed, in almost every area of domestic policy, Obama has stuck close to the center of the Democratic Party.

The problem for Democrats is that Republicans have been far more successful at playing the message wars. They have successfully depicted Obama, regardless of what he does or says, as far left.

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Even as liberals in his party constantly complain that he has abandoned many of his 2008 campaign promises, the Republicans have moved forward with their attacks. Democrats have been unable to respond effectively.

But the debt reduction battle could be a political turning point that has major implications for the 2012 election. It might resemble the moment when Clinton focused on deficit reduction and welfare reform in 1995 and 1996, soon after Republicans took control of Congress, and took those issues off the table, thereby diminishing the distance between him and the GOP in the minds of voters.

During this year's debate over deficit reduction and the debt ceiling, Obama came out with a "Grand Bargain," a debt-cutting package that was far more dramatic than what was being discussed.

The move put him in an excellent position politically. He staked out a position as a deficit hawk, yet he did so through a deal he knew that Republicans were unlikely to accept. By calling for grander debt reduction, but with a plan that included revenue increases, he squeezed House Speaker John Boehner, who has been under intense pressure from the right.

Indeed, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the Tea Party Republicans said no, insisting they would not accept any deal that included any type of tax increase whatsoever. Then, last week, the "Gang of Six" in the Senate came forward with another compromise.

As House Republicans hemmed and hawed, Obama immediately took the opportunity to enthusiastically embrace the plan as the basis for a resolution to this crisis. And on Friday, Boehner walked out of the debt talks.

If a deal comes together, Obama will be able to claim that he was an enthusiastic partner, one who helped shape the parameters of the debate. If a deal does not come through, he can blame the Republicans for refusing to compromise.

Republican presidential candidates should be nervous about the polls. Public opinion shows that the public doesn't trust either side to resolve the deficit, but they trust the Republicans far less than they do the Democrats.

According to a Wall Street Journal poll, the public supports Obama's grand bargain by a 22% margin. ABC News and The Washington Post reported that 77% believed that the GOP has not done enough to compromise on the deficit, compared with 58% saying the same about Obama. According to CBS News, 71% of those surveyed were unhappy with how the Republicans were handling the negotiations, compared with a 48% disapproval rate for Obama.

Many Senate Republicans, particularly those who were around in the Clinton years, sense the political danger.

Sen. John McCain told Politico, referring to the House Republicans, "I believe that they're convinced that they're carrying out the mandate (of the 2010 election). The polling data indicates Americans don't want the government shut down. ... I hope (House Republicans) would be instructed by what happened in 1995."

Obama's strategy in this struggle is not without potential costs of its own, both political and economic. Just as Clinton angered many liberals with welfare reform in 1996, there are many Democrats who believe it is a mistake for Obama to embrace deficit reduction when the economy is in such poor shape. They feel that taking money out of the economy will only make conditions worse and leave unemployment rates at their current levels.

In fact, this is one of the biggest risks for the president. Something that seems like a politically smart move now could come back to haunt him if the spending cuts make it through Congress. If liberal economists such as Paul Krugman are correct and the debt reduction package stifles economic recovery, Obama will continue to give Republicans the most potent issue of 2012: economic malaise.

But for now, the politics of the debt reduction debate has turned on the Republicans -- and certainly on those thinking about running for the presidency in 2012.

Obama has aggressively moved forward on an issue that has caused concern for many moderate and independent voters. By allying with some Senate Republicans, he has made the House GOP look like extremists who are more interested in tying up Congress than in reducing the deficit.

It took some time for Republicans to recover from Clinton's move to the center in 1995 and 1996. The GOP might very well be replaying this scenario.

Certainly, one Republican presidential candidate who is aware of this risk is Newt Gingrich, who lived through those Clinton years and understands the high costs of allowing your opponent to receive credit for the issue that you once used against him.

In the end, politics is as important as principle when it comes to governance. It is not enough for a politician to stand on a soapbox and champion his ideals. Politicians need to be able to cut deals. This is not because politics is corrupt but because politics is about compromise.

If House Republicans are unable to come to the table and reach an agreement, even when they are being told yes, they might end up doing more than any Democrat has done to bolster Obama's standing as president.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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