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Published: Saturday, 12/18/2010

Sometimes, a president must upset his base

BILL Clinton's appearance this month at the White House lectern in support of President Obama's high-noon tax deal set the press buzzards buzzing. The remarks of the Great Triangulator were proof, or so they buzzed, that Barack Obama was triangulating too as if that were a mortal sin. History shows that triangulation is at worst a venial sin.

The return of the Big Dog, as Mr. Clinton sometimes is called, also was seen as evidence that Mr. Obama had been forced to the right and diminished since coming into the White House - though presidential drift to the left in domestic policy (see Nixon, Richard) or taxes (see Bush, George H.W.) is often seen in the press as confirmation that a chief executive has grown.

Two factors will exonerate Mr. Obama as a courageous visionary or convict him for craven opportunism. One is the economy, over which Mr. Obama has discovered he has little control. The other is the verdict of the voters, who demonstrated last month that they would not forever swoon at Mr. Obama's command.

If the economy rebounds, and if the voters rush back to Mr. Obama's side - and surely the latter will not happen if the former does not - then he will be regarded as a magus. If it doesn't and they don't, he'll be regarded as a miscreant.

So for the purposes of this morning's conversation over coffee, let's leave the judging to others, or maybe to history. Let's simply pass the cream and recall that presidents like to think they are as stable as Plymouth Rock, when in fact they drift like the Mayflower.

To prove this, we need not go back to Thomas Jefferson, who found a way to embrace the Louisiana Purchase even though he didn't believe in territorial expansion, or to Franklin Roosevelt, who had few fixed principles and was, in Herbert Hoover's timeless phrase, a chameleon on plaid. We need only examine a handful of presidents in Mr. Obama's own 49-year lifetime.

Start with Lyndon Johnson, who in October, 1964, vowed that "we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." He was, of course, the president who escalated the American presence in Vietnam to 536,000 troops.

But he was also the president who, based on his expansive view of American freedoms and his intuitive sense of Americans' commitment to equality, broke with his own region and his own political mentors (especially his beloved Richard Russell) to side with the black freedom movement and sign two of the landmark civil-rights measures in American history.

"He was known to be friendly toward civil rights, but going full tilt the way he did was unexpected," Harry McPherson, Jr., who was special counsel and chief speechwriter to Johnson in the White House, said in a conversation last week. "But history intervened. He had to move forward as vigorously as he did. There was a whole movement out there in the country changing the public's views. The fire hoses, the dogs, the freedom riders, the burning buses - we now know that he could not have ignored them."

No president in American history has confounded so many people as Richard M. Nixon, who rose to prominence in the late 1940s as a fractious Cold Warrior and who won a triumphant re-election battle in large measure because of his rapprochement with the twin symbols of Communism, the nations then called Soviet Russia and Red China.

But for Nixon, a classic triangulator known as Tricky Dick, his trips to China (soon after the 1972 Iowa caucuses) and the Soviet Union (as anti-war Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination) were not the only angles he played.

The mature Nixon was an ideological isosceles. He went against his party and every assumption when, in a hauntingly relevant episode in February, 1971, he called for a program of health insurance covering every American, using the private insurance sector but with an employer mandate to provide coverage, a federal subsidy for those unable to pay, and shared risk pools.

He also created the Environmental Protection Agency, expanded the food-stamp program, and supported open-housing legislation that many conservatives - especially in the Southern states he courted so openly, so assiduously, and so cynically - feared and opposed. And he supported wage-and-price controls in 1971 and ended the convertibility of the dollar to gold, both anathema to conservatives.

"Nixon was willing to go against his own constituencies," said John Price, who in the Nixon White House was special assistant to the president and executive secretary of the Council for Urban Affairs and now is the head of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh. "He had a long view and weighed the politics with his real interest in the substance. But you can only do so much of this. Nixon always tacked back and re-gathered the reins on his own troops."

All of which tacks us back to Mr. Obama, who was 2 when Johnson took office and 7 when Nixon took office. He is selling his tax compromise, reviled by liberals as Democratic apostasy and scorned by some conservatives as a mealy-mouthed surrender to high deficits, as the work of someone who did what he promised to do in the campaign: to bring "Democrats and Republicans to the table - to put together a compromise and work through our differences," as he put it in his radio address earlier this month.

Surely it has been Mr. Obama's goal to live up to Alexander Hamilton's characterization of George Washington as someone who "consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely."

But in truth, he acts a lot more like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The shock for someone who lived through the Johnson and Nixon years is the recognition that years from now, what he's doing might not look half bad - indeed, good enough for government work.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com.



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