In the past year, numerous people have tried to understand Obama. Was he an extreme liberal? Was he naive or a Chicago pol? Was he an opportunist? Or maybe he was simply a human manifestation of pure ethereal change? Everyone had their opinion on who the man was and what he thought. The explanation I found most convincing was articulated by Daniel Larison, who maintained that Obama was a careful, centrist, consensus building, establishment politician who sought compromise and did not rock the boat. This explanation was concordant with his calm and attentive persona. It also explained why his positions from health care to foreign policy were extremely centrists, despite his more leftist record and the fiery rhetoric. His position to talk with Iran and Syria, while controversial, is centrist in that it is merely a logical extension of the Anbar Awakening and negotiations with North Korea. Only his initial opposition to the Iraq War could be seen as a significant break from the establishment. Overall, he had center-left positions during the campaign, clearly within the mainstream of the Democratic Party; and to the right of his primary opponents.
This vision of the man has a fairly good explanatory power, yet it is not perfect. For example, it does not explain how he ran one of the best campaign in recent history that defied conventional wisdom in so many way and managed to largely bypass established interest groups. But more importantly, it's an approximation of the man based on his actions before he became President. The incentives are different now, which should affect his future actions.
I believe his pragmatic, consensus seeking persona of the past few years was due to two main factors. First, he does seem to have the personality of someone who favors consensus building, based on all I have read about his history and his management style. The second is that he is the ultimate striver, the kind of man ambitious enough to become President of the United States at 47 years old. He knew that as the young and inexperienced candidate, he had no chances of being elected if he had positions that were not approved by the establishment. But the incentives are different now that he is in power in a political climate as favorable as can be. As President, his ambition will push him into doing things that will make him remembered as a great President.
We know that he is deeply aware of his history and we saw in the campaign that he thinks more in the long term than most politicians. Obama has been compared to Kennedy, but he has repeatedly said that his ideal is Lincoln. He also greatly respects Reagan because he left much more of a mark on the country than Clinton ever did. This is a very important aspect of Obama. He wants to be seen as a Jackson, Lincoln or FDR and not a Buchanan, Hoover or Carter. Of course, if poll numbers drop in the coming years, he might focus on policies that are popular in the short term. But right now I doubt Obama is in survival mode; he's definitely feeling the wind of change and he intends to ride it in a way that satisfy his more ambitious side.
What I think Obama will do as a President is steer very close to the "centrist consensus" on the majority of issues just like the Obama we are accustomed to, but on several issues he will attempt massive changes in policy. The major factor which will decide where he spend his political capital will be how it will affect his legacy.
I think we are starting to have a few examples of this. The first one is alternative energy. Obama supports a major investment to support the growth of this burgeoning industry. This makes perfect sense if one look at the long term trends on energy. Oil production will peak or slow, causing prices increase which will force a more widespread use of alternative energy. This is inevitable in the long term given the current trends. When this happens, history will remember Obama as the first President to get serious about alternative energy.
Second, we learned Sunday that Obama supports the Arab Peace Initiative for the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This is perhaps the most ambitious peace deal the region has ever seen; all Arab states would recognize Israel, it would withdraw to the lines of 1967 and recognize the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. This would be the most important landmark for peace in the Middle East since the creation of the state of Israel. Needless to say it is more interesting to have your name associated with this kind of deal than, let's say, an easier to achieve Israel-Syria bilateral peace.
Third, Obama has apparently bought the argument that if Pakistan can not be safe on its eastern border, it will not manage to be stable in the west. Since stability in Afghanistan depends on the ability of Pakistan to control its western frontier, to bring peace in Afghanistan he must reach a peace deal on Kashmir. The logic is tenuous at best; there is simply no evidence that the instability in western Pakistan is due to trouble on the eastern border; western Pakistan was lawless during the Raj, it was lawless during the Indio-Pakistani wars and it was lawless during ceasefires. But the rewards are great for Obama; if he succeed he will be widely hailed as the leader who brought peace to one of the most dangerous battle zone in the world, whereas only a few historians will care about whether his argument for involving the US in this conflict was sound.
Fourth, although it is too early to tell how Barack will move on the subject, it is interesting that the Baucus health care reform blueprint goes further than Obama's campaign promises, all the way to universality of health care. Obama has not balked at this at all, in fact several serious observers believe he is happy that the legislators are going farther than he promised to, since he clung more to the center during the campaign to avoid feeding the "extreme liberal" meme. Given the current environment, Obama will definitely try to make such a plan pass. Being the President associated with universality of health care ensures a place in the textbooks.
The final example is Proposition 8. Quite a few people have asked why Obama, who was safely cruising to election days before the Nov. 4th, did not say anything to help the "No" vote on Proposition 8, or why he did not say anything about it since the result has been known. Why did he decide not to stick his neck out for this subject? I think it is because there is very little to gain in term of legacy. People who fight for gay rights have been slowly but surely winning the "war" during the past decades, and Proposition 8 will be seen as a mere bump in a long term trend favoring gay rights. Obama has no intention of spending political capital for a bump that will be seen as unimportant in the grand scheme of things. He know he will be mostly seen as pro gay anyway. This is different than alternative energy, where Obama can be seen as the first president with the "correct" vision on the topic and thus secure a place in history.
So do not be surprised too see bold actions by an Obama administration despite his carefully crafted centrist image.