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Alter: Obama replants goalposts in America’s midfield

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

In the summer of 2011, when the “Grand Bargain” on deficit reduction failed, House Speaker John Boehner accused President Barack Obama of “moving the goal posts” – shifting his demands to the left.

After Boehner objected, Obama quickly moved the goal posts back and said he wanted to keep talking. But the speaker thought it was too late and the deal collapsed.

Goal-post shifting is back in style. Behind the soaring rhetoric of the inaugural address and his announcement of a bold immigration plan, the president is engaged in a carefully calibrated effort to move the debate away from the right side of the field.

In their interactions over the past two years, a chastened Obama started in the center and the Republicans started on the right and the never-found compromise lay on the center-right.

Since winning re-election, Obama is starting on the center-left and the Republicans are moving toward the center-right. With any luck, they will find compromise in the center. The real center.

Of course, they won’t get there until they move beyond the bad blood of their end-of-the-year failure to do anything significant about the budget.

The House leadership says Obama delivered boring “I won” lectures to the speaker and doesn’t have a clue about how to negotiate; the White House says the speaker can’t deliver his own caucus.

Both sides have blown chances to strike a deal on favorable terms. Republicans should have done so in July 2011 instead of holding out for a big 2012 electoral victory that never came. Democrats should have accepted Boehner’s December 2012 offer of a 1-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases instead of taking the risk of allowing fights over budget deadlines to overshadow priorities such as immigration and gun safety.

Even as they lick their wounds after the election, Republicans should take comfort in how far they have shifted the center of gravity in U.S. politics over the past two years.

Consider the coverage of Obama’s second inaugural address. Pundits outdid each other in describing how liberal it was.

It wasn’t. With the exception of its first-ever mention of gay rights, the speech was essentially an eloquent rear-guard action defending the 20th-century consensus on the role of government.

The president celebrated achievements such as Social Security, Medicare, infrastructure, science, education and openness to immigrants that were backed by presidents of both parties for decades. They aren’t liberal ideas but ones right down the median strip of U.S. politics.

Obama wrapped them in progressive rhetoric to be true to himself and his liberal values and – more pragmatically – to give himself cover with the left for the painful budget compromises to come.

In 2011, he had no such cover. Had he followed through with his plans to bargain away the chained consumer-price index (a different way of calculating inflation that could reduce Social Security benefits) and means-testing for entitlements, his support on the left would have cratered.

Now he has the strong backing he needs from his liberal base for serious compromise on immigration, guns and even entitlements.

Even that expression – liberal base – had been missing from U.S. politics for a long time. Get used to it.

Obama is getting set to pursue the same “base-out” strategy that worked for Ronald Reagan when he compromised on taxes, spending and immigration in the 1980s. The Republican president made concessions that would have been savaged by his party had they come from someone with less-stellar conservative credentials. Look at what happened to President George H.W. Bush when he raised taxes in 1991.

Liberals and moderates need to keep their expectations in check. There will be no progressive nirvana for the left and no Grand Bargain that satisfies the Simpson-Bowles crowd.

With the dip in the economy, long passes downfield aren’t likely. But field goals through some newly positioned goal posts should help the president – and the country – put a few points on the board this year.

• Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”

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