This should surprise no one. Obama did not rise on Bill Clinton's political path -- the path of a New Democrat, forced to win and govern in a red state. Obama was a conventional, congressional liberal in every way -- except in his extraordinary abilities. His great talent was talent itself, not ideological innovation. And given the general Republican collapse of 2006 to 2008 -- rooted in the initial unraveling of Iraq, the corruption of the Republican congressional majority and the financial meltdown -- Obama did not need innovation to win. Only ability and the proper tone.
But Obama's decisive political victory did not involve a decisive ideological shift in the country. Even near the height of Obama's popularity, in April, 55 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll said that big government was the biggest threat to the economy versus 32 percent who said big business. A center-right nation elected a conventionally liberal president. The current health debate is the result. Obama, once again, relies on his political virtuosity to prevail. But he lacks the ideological tools to win unexpected allies and poach support in the middle. His main argument remains: "I won." That may be enough to muscle through a comprehensive health reform bill (though I doubt Obama has changed the challenging political dynamic in Congress). It is not enough to realign American politics or change its tone.
Some Republicans are likely to draw the wrong lesson from the past few months -- that somehow their shrillness, incivility and conspiracy theories have been responsible for Obama's fall to earth, rather than Obama's overreach. This is a political miscalculation equal to Obama's own. With some exceptions among governors, the modern GOP can hardly be called intellectually ascendant. Some Republican forms of populism -- pitting the heartland against the coasts and the "real" America against the elites -- involve hostility to the very idea of ideas. But it will be wonks, not firebrands, who can exploit Obama's main weakness -- his lack of policy creativity.
Obama now leads the party of liberalism. The GOP bids to become the party of anger. America needs at least one of them to be the party of ideas.