Joan Vennochi

The precarious middle

Obama tries to sell himself as a champion of the political center

(Globe Wire Services; Photo Illustration/ Heather Hopp-Bruce)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / March 27, 2011

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WITH REPUBLICAN Newt Gingrich and Democrat Dennis Kucinich both talking impeachment, President Obama is in a special place.

Call it caught between two extremes.

While not exactly comfortable, the middle ground is where he needs to be to win reelection. That’s the Obama team’s hope and they have reason to believe in it.

A new Pew Research Center poll shows Obama beating a generic Republican, 47 to 37 percent. Of course, Obama will be running against an actual Republican, in an election that is more than 18 months away. A lot can and will happen between now and then. If what happens in Libya is perceived as bad, that won’t be good for Obama.

But given the ideological beating Obama is taking now, from Donald Trump to Hugo Chavez, he has every right to sell himself as a champion of the political center. That’s important, because independent voters elected him in 2008 and he will need them again.

Critics at both ends of the political spectrum are helping him make the case for 2012 to that same constituency.

In many ways, this is presidential political history repeating itself. Once in office, you can never be pure enough to satisfy the purists, because that makes you unelectable. Meanwhile, the opposition will always attack, because that’s what opponents do.

When Republican George W. Bush was president, liberals demonized everything he did, and mocked the notion of “compassionate conservatism.’’ But conservatives were also disappointed in certain Bush stands — immigration reform, for example. Before Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton was demonized by the political right. Liberals were also disappointed in certain stands he took — welfare reform, for example — and were not happy to have him declare an end to the era of big government.

Both presidents won second terms. They were reelected partly because of whom they were running against and partly because the sensible middle did not buy the extreme portraits painted by their most ferocious foes. Clinton remained popular, despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal. By the time Bush left office, he was very unpopular. But when he was running against Democrat John Kerry, voters had not yet translated Bush’s moral certitude as stubborn recklessness.

Up until Obama’s decision to participate in an international effort to help rebels by bombing Libya, the president’s harshest critics came from the right. If Obama’s for it, they’re against it, whether it’s health care reform or high-speed rail. Some policy issues raised by the GOP are resonating with the public. Republican victories during last November’s midterm election cycle prove that. But the petty, unrelenting chorus raising insidious questions about his citizenship, carping about every presidential trip, and whining about his low-key approach to crisis sounds slightly unhinged after a while.

Then came Libya. Obama missed a big opportunity to speak with one voice on a no-fly zone. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona expressed early support for that option. Announcing it in the Rose Garden with McCain at his side would have sent a powerful bipartisan message. Instead, Obama waited while two sides inside his administration fought it out. Still, this is a president who took his time to assemble international support and consider the nuances before acting.

When the bombing finally kicked off, McCain said, “He waited too long, there is no doubt in my mind. But now, it is what it is. And we need, now, to support him and the efforts that our military are going to make.’’

Support is not what Obama is getting from either extreme.

Republicans who complained that he was “dithering’’ over Libya are now saying he acted precipitously. Hardcore liberals also question whether the US missile strikes are constitutional. US Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio — who also sought to bring impeachment articles against Bush — specifically asked why the Libyan missile strikes aren’t impeachable offenses. Gingrich’s allusions to impeachment did not relate to Libya, but to Obama’s failure to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.

Critics from the right and left are casting a shadow on yet another president.

Obama can only hope he gets past the shadows, to the sunny middle, where reasonable people understand he is doing his best under tough circumstances.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at