Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Intentional or not, it sizzled with symbolism that President Obama announced his re-election campaign the same day his administration threw in the towel on the closing of Guantanamo Bay. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four others would be tried by a military tribunal at the prison Obama once described as a violation of "core constitutional values." A central pledge of one campaign was abandoned to kick off the next.

This reversal was soon followed by a budget agreement that Obama described as the "biggest annual spending cut in history" -- leaving his progressive base wounded and abandoned on the budget battlefield. The man that liberals elected to complete the work of Lyndon Johnson had suddenly adopted the idiom of Ronald Reagan.

These are the clearest indications yet of the way that Obama intends to run for re-election. The grand repositioning has begun -- with one notable exception. Having tilted toward the center on foreign policy and economic issues, Obama has sent a different signal on cultural ones. He has signed legislation repealing "don't ask, don't tell," given up on defending the Defense of Marriage Act and talked of new gun control laws. Republicans have sometimes been guilty of appeasing their base with winks and nods on cultural controversies. Though doubtlessly sincere in his views, Obama is employing the same approach.

The overall strategy of projecting a centrist pragmatism is probably a good one. Though Obama has seen some recent erosion in support among African-Americans and Hispanics, his approval among liberals is steady in the 70s. At a comparable point in his presidency, Bill Clinton's liberal support was in the mid-60s. Even as the professional left registers feeble protests to Obama's ideological evolution, nothing seems to shake the faith of progressive voters. They can be safely taken for granted.

In contrast, Obama's approval among independents has dropped 23 points since he took office. Democrats lost this group by a 56-to-37 margin in November. There is no re-election without reversing this trend.

But can Obama's centrist transformation succeed? There are serious obstacles.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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