WASHINGTON -- There is a broad consensus that President-elect Obama's broad victory should be accompanied by broadly appealing policies and broad-minded appointments. The new president should follow the broad outlines of this advice -- except where he should completely ignore it.
The most impressive aspect of Obama's victory was, in fact, its breadth. He improved on John Kerry's performance among independents, suburban voters and Catholics. He won or tied every age group except those over 65. He made gains among low-income voters and the most affluent. It was important for America's first minority president to secure a clear majority, rather than boosting the turnout of a few groups to gain a narrow, divisive victory. Obama not only won; he won in a healing manner.
But the burden of a broad victory is holding together a broad coalition, including many moderates who could be easily alienated by early missteps. Obama's election was a tremendous historic achievement, but it was not an ideological revolution. In the 2004 election, according to The Associated Press, 21 percent of Americans called themselves liberal, 45 percent moderate and 34 percent conservative. In this election, 22 percent described themselves as liberal, 44 percent as moderate and 34 percent as conservative. Obama won by convincing an ideologically stable electorate that he is a not a radical -- not by shifting the electorate toward radicalism.
So it makes sense for the next president to pursue his main goals -- economic recovery, middle-class tax relief, health-care reform and the development of alternative energy -- with a flexible centrism. It makes sense to appoint respected and reassuring leaders to key economic and security posts (the retention of Defense Secretary Robert Gates would be both a bipartisan signal and a reward for excellence). And it makes sense to avoid early culture war battles that could ignite a wounded congressional minority, provoke dejected conservatives into a backlash, and undermine the prospect of bipartisan achievement.