Called a two-faced liar, Abraham Lincoln famously replied, "If I had another face, would I be wearing this one?" Of course, Lincoln did have two faces, and he wore them both. The visionary egalitarian who abhorred slavery was also the temporizing pragmatist who was prepared to tolerate slavery, for generations if need be, in order to save the Union.
The same Ronald Reagan who scourged Big Government and Soviet Communism raised taxes to preserve Social Security and partnered with the Evil Empire on arms control. John F. Kennedy's knack for combining idealistic rhetoric with icy realism remains a marvel. FDR had two, three, or even four faces, depending how you count.
It's the one-faced presidents who tend to get in trouble. When George W. Bush let his tough, ideological face completely supplant his genial, moderate one, he paid dearly. In a three-faced country -- roughly a third Democratic, a third Republican, and a third independent -- one face is not enough. You need two to govern.
And President Obama? Like Bush, he entered office with two faces, one for his base and one for the center. In 2008, he merged them, brilliantly, under the single ambiguous rubric of "change," letting voters see what they wanted to see.
To the Democratic Party's progressive base, he looked like the Ted Kennedy of 1980: a liberal lion who could lead progressives out of the wilderness and banish conservatism to outer darkness. "Change," to the base, meant replacing right-wing ideology with left-wing ideology. Independents, by contrast, thought "change" meant transcending ideology. They saw in Obama something like the Ross Perot of 1992: an unconventional reformer who would put partisanship aside, fix broken politics, replace stale old ideas with fresh new ones, cure the common cold, and so on.
Given how little his two "change" constituencies have in common, Obama has done well at holding them together. But the polls lately are worrisome. Independents are drifting away.
According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, their approval of Obama fell from 63 percent in May to 58 percent in June. According to Gallup, it dropped from 59 percent in June to 53 percent in July. According to NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, it dropped from 60 percent in April to 46 percent in June.
Some portion of independents' disaffection reflects disappointing economic news and will turn around when the economy recovers. Part of it, however, reflects something more fundamental. Obama is governing from the center of his party, not the center of the country. Security policy, Afghanistan, and gay rights are important exceptions. Nonetheless, whatever you may think of his very large budget deficits, his economic stimulus, his takeover of General Motors, his demand for a government-run health plan, his efforts to regulate greenhouse gases and rewire energy markets, and so on, they are convincing independents that Obama is a liberal.
According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the percentage of independents calling Obama "liberal" rose from 46 percent in April to 61 percent in June. "A large portion of them actually classify him as 'very liberal,' " writes Gerald F. Seib in the WSJ. "That's a particular problem because independents tend to view themselves as center-right -- 78 percent call themselves moderate or conservative -- so they see a president moving to the left of where they are."
Inside the Beltway, we sophisticates understand the unforgiving congressional arithmetic that requires Obama to appease Hill barons and liberal interest groups. We understand the pressures that turn a cap-and-trade bill into a Christmas tree, that neuter efforts to consolidate fragmented financial regulation, and that strip cost controls out of health reform. To Perot voters, however, all this reeks of business as usual, which is precisely what Obama promised to, ahem, "change." They might forgive Obama for being a liberal if he governs effectively, but they are not likely to forgive him for being a conventional liberal. The face he is wearing is beginning to look an awful lot like Walter Mondale's.
Announcing some trivial spending cuts, ending a fighter-jet program, or vetoing an appropriations bill might help a little, but not much. Turning the economy around would help a lot, though that is more up to the economy than to Obama. When the economy is steadier, Obama needs to pivot decisively toward deficit reduction, a signature issue for Perot voters; but now is not the time for that.
In the nearer term, Obama needs to pick a few fights with the Washington establishment and, if need be, his own party. He needs to show he is willing to fight for reform even when liberal partisans wish he wouldn't. What sort of reform? Coincidentally, I have an idea in mind.
According to news reports, the government is holding 90 or so detainees at Guantanamo whom it deems too dangerous to release but who, for whatever reason, it does not believe can be charged with a crime and successfully tried. Human-rights advocates, including most liberal Democrats, demand that detainees be released if they can't be tried, but Obama has concluded that the risks are too great. In a speech in May at the National Archives, he said this: "We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security." And this: "I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people." The hard fact is that no president will release people who he believes may go out and try to kill large numbers of Americans.
Obama needs to pick a few fights with the Washington establishment and, if need be, his own party.
Obama went on to criticize the Bush administration for failing to establish a "legitimate legal framework" for detention. "In our constitutional system," he said, "prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man" -- that "one man" being his predecessor. Obama was right. Bush's insistence that the president could unilaterally throw virtually anyone into prison more or less forever stained the country's reputation and strained the Constitution's fabric.
Obama said he would "work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime." If he did, that would be a major and welcome development. For seven years, Congress, abetted by Bush, energetically shirked its constitutional duty to frame a detention law. In his May speech, Obama made clear that he understands why: "These are issues that are fodder for 30-second commercials and direct-mail pieces that are designed to frighten."
He also understands that his party's liberal base has set its face against a law institutionalizing long-term detention. A detention bill would split his own party. To pass one, he would need to assemble a coalition of Republicans and centrist Democrats. It's do-able, but not easy -- which is something else Obama understands: "I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult."
In other words, Obama promised to do something politically difficult for the good of national security and the Constitution. That was in May. In June, White House officials floated a different plan, namely copping out. "Worried that reaching quick agreement with Congress on a new detention system may be impossible," reported The Washington Post, administration officials were "crafting language for an executive order that would reassert presidential authority to incarcerate terrorism suspects indefinitely." Then, this week, an unnamed administration official walked back the walk-back, telling The Post that the administration will seek detention authority from Congress after all.
Continuing Bush's unilateralism is the path of least resistance. Everyone could live with it. Liberals want to avoid institutionalizing detention, Democrats want to avoid a divisive issue, and Republicans would be happy to see Bush vindicated.
But shrinking from a legislative fight over detention has costs of its own. It entails reneging on a "change" promise. It makes a mockery of Obama's criticisms of Bush. It reinforces the message that Obama is unwilling to challenge his party's base, even when he thinks it is wrong.
For independents in general and Perot voters in particular, detention is hardly a front-of-the-mind issue. But a fight in which Obama challenged the status quo, crossed party lines, and stood up to his base would get independents' attention. Sending the Hill a "Secure America" bill and fighting for its passage would split his party, all right. Perhaps, however, he should consider that a plus, not a minus. And, yes, he could pass it. Presidents almost always get the security laws they believe they need.
If you were to say that detention is not the ideal issue for Obama to fight his base on, you would be correct. There is no such thing as an ideal issue for an intraparty confrontation, almost by definition. But he needs to push back somewhere. The polls are telling him that if he does not establish his independence, he will soon lose his independents.
This article appeared in the Saturday, July 25, 2009 edition of National Journal.