More Than Moderation

Michael Gerson
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Posted: Nov 12, 2008 12:01 AM
More Than Moderation

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.

And yet the philosophy of broadness and moderation has its limits; it is a tool of leadership, not its essence. And it can slip into something disturbing. It is easy to imagine Obama advisers arguing -- as Democratic strategists often have argued during the last few decades -- that Democrats should focus exclusively on broad, middle-class concerns. That dealing with extreme poverty in America, particularly among African-Americans, might be too "narrow" for the new president -- especially for this president. That focusing on the needs of Africa might seem too liberal and bring too much attention to Obama's own background. That Obama should keep these more "sectarian" issues for the end of his tenure -- when his power reaches its ebb.

We all know the economic needs of the moment must be addressed -- but not at the expense of larger ambitions and historic responsibilities.

Political indifference to durable poverty in our midst has long been a scandal; from Obama it would be a tragedy. America does need to "spread the wealth" -- but not in the simply redistributionist sense. The racial divide in our country is widest when it comes to assets. The median net worth of white and Asian-Americans in 2004 was $142,700. The median net worth of African-Americans was $20,400. There are many reasons for this massive disparity, including what Lincoln called centuries of "unrequited toil." Reparations are a politically self-destructive dead end. But what if President Obama, for example, proposed to set up tax-free savings accounts for every poor child at birth and seeded those accounts with a few thousand dollars? Addressing the wealth gap through the miracle of compound interest would be a lasting contribution to the justice of our country.

When it comes to Africa, Obama's roots and popularity on the continent -- evidenced by jubilation on the news of his election -- are a significant foreign policy advantage. Africa is a growing source of trade, energy and voting support in international institutions. Continuing and expanding President Bush's emphasis on Africa would not be narrow but visionary -- and would find a receptive audience among Americans, including religious conservatives, with humanitarian commitments on the continent.

Sometimes presidential leadership means emphasizing progress for the whole and splitting ideological differences to get a deal. Obama will need close associates who remind him of broad, middle-class concerns.

But sometimes leadership consists of setting out moral goals that challenge the whole and transcend our differences. So the next president will also need high-level advisers who fight passionately to place social justice issues such as poverty on the agenda. If they succeed, Obama may discover unexpected sources of good will and support.