President Obama isn't riding as high as he thinks. He's popular, though no more than is usual for a new president. His party is in charge on Capitol Hill, but its command of the Senate is fraying. And just last week, the faint outlines of a center-right coalition in opposition to Obama's policies--and increasingly to Obama himself--began to emerge. It's an embryonic grouping that may prove to be ephemeral. But maybe not.
Obama's situation is the same as Bill Clinton's in 1993. Clinton had run for president as a moderate, just as Obama ran as a pragmatic, rather than an ideological, liberal. But both turned sharply liberal once in the White House. Clinton alienated the political center by promoting a government-run health care plan, gays in the military, and midnight basketball as a crime-fighting tool. Obama is doing the same--at least he's starting to--with his bid to enact the most far-reaching and costly set of liberal programs since the New Deal.
If the political attitudes of Americans have been propelled to the left by the Obama campaign and the economic slump, as many liberals insist, the president should have little to worry about. But if America is still predominantly a moderate-to-conservative country, as I believe it is, then Obama may be fostering a stronger and more united gathering of opponents than he and his strategists imagine.
They look at Republicans and their cockiness is reinforced. Indeed, Republicans do appear anemic at the moment. Their new national chairman, Michael Steele, is off to an unimpressive start. Conservatives, the base of the party, are squabbling among themselves. But what Republicans do now is considerably less important than what Obama does. Republicans had a skillful leader in 1993, Newt Gingrich. He wasn't the biggest factor in their comeback, however. A failed Democratic president was.
Obama hasn't failed. He's been in office less than two months. But he is sowing the seeds of failure, both economically and politically. He doesn't quite own the economy yet, but he does own the stock market. It's a bet on the future. And so far the stock market has registered a resounding vote of no confidence in Obama's economic policies. Nor has Obama helped matters with his seeming indifference to the uninterrupted decline in equities since his inauguration.
What doesn't the market like? The pork-filled stimulus package was anything but reassuring. The failure of the Obama administration to produce a credible bank rescue plan is downright alarming. On top of those stumbles, the Obama budget for the next 10 years has spooked the stock market all the more. It calls for a huge burst of domestic spending paid for by higher taxes on the well-to-do and business. That's a recipe for a transfer of wealth, not for an economic recovery or surge in stock prices.
The budget scared prominent Obamaphiles like David Brooks of the New York Times and Jim Cramer, the boisterous financial broadcaster. Brooks wrote that Obama "is not who we thought he was." Cramer said Obama is causing "the greatest wealth destruction I've seen by a president." Criticized for his comment by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, Cramer responded: "If that makes me an enemy of the White House, then call me a general of an army that Obama may not even know exists--tens of millions of people who live in fear of having no money saved when they need it and get poorer by the day." Moderate Democrats and Republicans were also shaken and said so publicly. The business community, which has tried to appease Obama, is growing fearful.
Here's the point: These are the people who drive centrist opinion. And the key to building a center-right coalition is drawing them away from Obama. The right is already in full anti-Obama mode. But attracting centrists and independents is something Republicans can't pull off on their own. Now they are getting help.
Congressional Republicans are actually doing a better job than they've gotten credit for in making themselves acceptable to centrists. The refrain of House Republican leader John Boehner is that Republicans must have "better solutions" to "win the issues." Their alternatives to Obama's economic policies have gotten little media attention, but they do exist and most are sensible. That's sufficient for the time being.
Democratic anxiety over the possibility of losing centrists--what there is of it--was reflected in the White House campaign to identify talk show superstar Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican party. He's not. Parties in the minority seldom have leaders except in parliamentary systems. But Limbaugh, though he may not appeal to centrists, is important. He and his followers are an indispensable part of an effective center-right coalition--a simple fact of political life that appears to have been lost on Republican snobs who would ostracize Limbaugh.
A majority coalition of centrists and conservatives is a long shot for the near future. In Clinton's case, it didn't spring into being until his second year in office. But in Obama's case, the same elements are already present. Pollster David Winston found in a survey last fall that the electorate's ideology hadn't changed. Most voters, including independents, remain right of center. This was ratified by the exit poll on Election Day. Only 22 percent identified themselves as liberal, while 34 percent were conservatives and 44 percent moderates.
Clinton didn't notice that a coalition had congealed in opposition to his policies until Republicans captured Congress in the 1994 landslide. He survived by shifting to the right and compromising with Republicans. Obama, for all his talk about bipartisanship, isn't ready to do that, and he may never have to. Then again, the possibility he'll need to accommodate a center-right alliance is growing.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.