The centre ground? There’s nowhere else for Obama to go

Bill Clinton isn’t a bad role model for a man who needs to govern in the real world.

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What's this? The Nineties? Or even the Eighties? President Barack Obama has been accused of channelling several of his predecessors this week – ranging from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter – after cutting a deal with the Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the middle classes (and, yes, a whole bunch of rich people, too).

In his weekly radio address to the nation this weekend, Obama declared the fate of working families was at stake – and with it, the future of the entire economic recovery. Sure, the deal included tax cuts for the wealthy that he didn't much like – but he claimed most of the changes would save the average family around $1,000. And he pointed out that unemployment insurance would also now be extended, calling the payments "the last defence between hardship and catastrophe" for those looking for work.

Of course, the simple fact of a bipartisan agreement has infuriated the Democratic base and has created Obama's very own backbench rebellion. In both House and Senate, scores of Democrats are refusing to endorse it. The Reagan – and later Bush – tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts to pay for them are, they say, what got us into this chronic debt in the first place.

The level of estate tax, they say, is way too generous to the rich. And many just think Obama has given up the fight. Rep Peter DeFazio (Oregon) summed up the mood on the left. "They told us, take it or leave it," he said. "So we left it."

Conservative Republicans aren't too thrilled, either. The deal includes a huge economic stimulus package worth hundreds of billions of dollars, something that seemed inconceivable after the GOP's sweeping success in the midterm elections.

But for Obama, it's all being depicted as a combination of Reaganite economics, Clintonite compromise . . . and a political atmosphere that echoes Jimmy Carter's total isolation from his own party. Not a good mix.

But hold on. Perhaps one of those guys isn't such a bad role model for a Democratic president who needs to govern in a real world of economic fragility and political division: where the public is yearning for the parties to work together (in the most recent poll, 70 per cent said they wanted Obama to compromise with the GOP).

And on Friday, Bill Clinton himself turned up in the West Wing to help sell the controversial tax deal. As Obama slipped away to a Christmas party, the 42nd president took centre stage in the briefing room for more than 20 minutes. It was, mused the press, almost like the old days.

Clinton stressed the economic urgency of reaching a deal maximising the chances that the recovery would accelerate. And he argued that this was no time for macho point-scoring between the parties. "But first, the economy first," he said. "We can't go back into a recession. We have to keep crawling out of this mess we're in. And this is a good first step."

Clinton, though, always positioned himself as a centrist, whereas Obama has tried to straddle a rather uneasy combination of liberal and pragmatist. And the economic problems of the Nineties, according to Clinton's labour secretary, Robert Reich, were nothing like as bad as the global crisis today.

If they stood for anything, he wrote on his own website this week, the Democrats have been all about increasing opportunity for the majority of working Americans while trying to limit the power and the wealth of the most privileged. Extending the Bush-era tax cuts, he said, "violates these core principles. Doing so in the midst of an economic emergency that demands bold measures to rescue America's vast middle and working class adds further insult."

Obama's team, he concluded, has been outwitted by the rich, seduced by Wall Street or deluded by advisers who put short-term tactics above the broader, ideological picture. The president, according to this view, is proving too quick to compromise and too reluctant to defend his core priorities.

Whatever. Obama's team has clearly had enough of carping congressional colleagues: after all, wasn't all that partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill to blame for the Democrats' woeful political fortunes? And isn't this just the latest chapter in the war on the "professional left"? "Americans did not vote for unyielding partisanship," Obama said last week: "they're demanding co-operation."

So this is, as many pundits have pointed out, turning into a pivotal moment for this presidency: it will show whether Obama can find a new voice in this bipartisan political reality. Whether he can connect with voters who still aren't sure who he is and where he's taking them. And whether he can continue to make political compromises without risking the disappointment of millions of his own supporters turning into outright disengagement.

The centre ground? Not so comfortable. But right now, there's nowhere else for him to go.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.

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