Rich Lowry sees the Rick Warren flap as the latest round of the culture wars, with President-elect Obama the unlikely focus of the Left’s venom and a victim of its desire to exclude and marginalize “traditionalists” from the public square. But the incident may say more about President-elect Obama than about the combatants in this fight.
Barney Frank was, I think, onto something about the President-elect when he declared, “I believe that he overestimates his ability to get people to put aside fundamental differences.” Frank didn’t mince words:
“But my one question is, I think he overestimates his ability to take people, particularly our colleagues on the right, and, sort of, charm them into being nice,” Frank said. “I know he talks about being post-partisan. But I’ve worked, frankly, with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, the current Republican leadership. The current Republican leadership in the House repudiated George Bush. I don’t know why Mr. Obama thinks he’s going to have them better than George Bush.
“And so, to be honest, when he talks about being post-partisan, having seen these people and knowing what they would do in that situation, I suffer from post-partisan depression,” Frank said jokingly.
One might interpret Frank’s words as an effort to egg on the President-elect to take up the more contentious parts of the liberal agenda. But Frank, I would argue, laid bare the Obama dilemma. Obama won the presidency by holding two contradictory stances: a) I am the most “progressive” candidate ever to run for President and will enact items on the liberal agenda no one thought achievable, and b) I am a unifier who will end the partisan divisions and create a new post-partisan majority. The first dominated his primary campaign while the second characterized both the general election and his transition period.
President-elect Obama may have been surprised by the backlash over Warren from the Left because he has been so successful until now in navigating from stances “a” to “b.” Sure, there was some fuss over his reversal on FISA, and Joe Biden wasn’t exactly the exemplar of progressive change, but allowances were made for the greater cause of electing a Democrat. Now the hated figure of George W. Bush is departing and the need to make excuses is lessening. Those who were certain they were getting Progressive Obama are likely to be more and more vocal when Unifer Obama (or Delaying and Deflecting Obama) appears on the scene. He may well have overestimated the degree to which his own base would migrate with him as he journeyed from partisan Democratic nominee to President.
Frank may be right that it won’t work — in large part because Frank and his ilk won’t stand for moderation. So, Frank may have been “projecting” as they say. Try as Obama might to charm and unify the country, his way will be impeded, not by the toothless Right, but by the angry and extreme Left, which isn’t in the mood for inclusion or compromise. Politicians on the Left aren’t much interested in bringing everyone together (that was simply a slogan to vilify Bush, who could be criticized as unduly partisan); they want to shift the political equation, redefine the culture and remake the economy.
President Obama will need to decide if that is really what his presidency will be about, or whether he is willing to take some heat from his own side in his quest for an effective presidency and a sustainable governing majority. As evidenced by the Warren invitation, it appears he’s opting for an effective presidency.