How will Barack Obama govern as president? One clue, I think, is the site where he chose to make his first post-election policy speech, laying out his economic stimulus plan last week.
Presumably he had many invitations and could have made it anywhere in Washington. But he chose to trek out to Northern Virginia, to George Mason University, a school known for its free market economics department. And the plan he unveiled there is not exactly what you might have expected from a politician who in 2007 had the most liberal voting record in the Senate, according to National Journal.
To be sure, he called for massive infrastructure spending, for alternative energy investment, for more health care spending -- all items from the Democratic wish list. But he also called for tax cuts for individuals and businesses -- the sort of thing Republicans usually press for. Three weeks ago, I put forward the guess that Obama would hold himself aloof from and above his party, much as Dwight Eisenhower did in the 1950s. It seems that, for the moment anyway, I guessed right.
All of which strikes me as good politics. Congressional Democrats are complaining about the tax cuts and calling for more public works spending -- even though, for all their talk of shovel-ready projects, pretty much everyone knows that such spending won't provide much in the way of an immediate stimulus to the economy. And that's especially true if their environmental group allies gin up lawsuits to protect this or that supposedly endangered species from imperilment from this or that highway or bridge.
Republicans, pleasantly surprised by the presence of tax cuts, are scurrying away from the demands for all-out opposition from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and movement conservatives. They're pleased that Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi are displeased by Obama's unwillingness to raise taxes on high earners immediately.
Obama seems to have drawn this lesson from recent and comparatively ancient legislative history: that both parties need to be drawn into the legislative negotiations, even though Democrats have sufficient majorities to pass a bill all by themselves.
Ancient history: Bill Clinton's decision to pass his 1993 economic package only with Democratic votes cost him and his party critical support. Recent history: The failure to draw the ordinarily powerless House Republican minority into discussions resulted in the (temporary) defeat of the $700 billion financial rescue package last September.