Jacob Heilbrunn

Barack Obama, Triangulator in Chief

President Obama may go down in history as a conservative president. Consider his record. He's not simply continued the war in Afghanistan. He's expanded it. Guantanamo Bay is open. Now he's just signed on to extending the Bush tax cuts in toto for another two years. By 2012 they may constitute a central campaign plank--as long as the Democrats decide to renominate him, which is starting to get slightly more questionable after his latest deal with the GOP.

Even as Obama once again lectured the nation about not playing politics last night, Sen. George Voinovich was voicing his disgust with the whole scene at the Aspen Institute a few hours earlier. As Dana Milbank observes,

George Voinovich, retiring from the Senate this month, is leaving behind an elegant legislative proposal for the Congress in which he served for a dozen years.

"I think we have to blow up the place," says the Ohio Republican.

He may have a point. At a minimum, the deficit would go down somewhat if America didn't have a Senate. Salaries for Senators and their gargantuan staffs could be part of cost-savings. Voinovich is steamed about deficits--about the unwillingness of either the GOP or the Democratic party to tackle them. Instead, they keep piling up. At some point, of course, the Chinese and another investors will tire of buying up American debt and, in any case, inflation will start to roar. It may not happen for a few years. But it happened in the 1970s, and a repetition could loom.

For now, the biggest threat to Obama may loom, not from the right, but the left. His nominal allies in Congress are going into conniptions over Obama's readiness to abandon his pledge to reinstitute higher tax rates on millionaires. Maybe there will even be a primary challenge from the likes of Howard Dean. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both were mortally wounded by primary challenges from, respectively, Ronald Reagan and Teddy Kennedy. The odds remain that Obama, personally popular, won't see a challenger.

Obama's game plan is clearly to follow the Clinton strategy of triangulating. But Clinton had Newt Gingrich to go up against. Whether John Boehner will prove as inept as Gingrich is highly questionable. Obama's only tack may be to keep capitulating to the GOP and eke out a few small victories along the way. Democrats are going to have to accept that the Bush tax code is, in essence, the new standard. They can try and fight it out with the GOP in the 2012 election, but their chances of success are slim. Even more questionable is whether Democrats can continue to demand a confiscatory estate tax. They should strike a permanent compromise with the GOP--actually, the current deal of a 35 percent rate and $10 million per couple isn't something Democrats shouldn't be able to live with.

But for Obama it's a bitter pill. The promise of his presidency has become just that--an evanescent one. He looked wan and defeated last night. So far, the only real change Obama has brought to Washington is creating a conservative resurgence.