The President In The Lion's Den

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

Which is more frightening: sitting one-on-one with a pundit who perches at the pinnacle of a media machine that has been undermining you over the airwaves for two years, or speaking to an audience of the wealthy and powerful who have sought to undercut your efforts with their wealth and power?

We can ask President Obama Tuesday morning after his two-day tour through the bases of conservative political power: An interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and an address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The O’Reilly engagement was part of the president’s tradition of sitting for a pre-Super Bowl interview with the network hosting the game. The visit to the Chamber is part of the President’s focus on jobs following a State of the Union address that emphasized increasing the competitiveness of American workers and the strength of the national economy. More symbolically, though, both are intentional efforts to reach audiences that have heard more from the administration’s conservative detractors than from the President himself — and both appearances will make many Americans ask the same question O’Reilly posed on Sunday night: since the midterms, is Obama making a move to the center?

The president responded, “I’m the same guy,” which is more true than most Americans believe. While the left sees him selling out to the right, and conservatives point and scream that he’s a socialist, Obama has always walked a middle road. In substance, his campaign never promised Medicare-for-all or single-payer health insurance as many liberals wanted; and his “Obamacare” that has so enraged the right is based on market solutions and exchanges that his 2008 opponent had proposed. In style, as well, Obama has always annoyed liberal supporters with his willingness to tango with the likes of O’Reilly — pre-election, he sat for an interview that O’Reilly edited into multiple segments — giving the Fox host greater credibility and leverage than many believe he deserves.

This latest open-arm approach to his detractors isn’t a new move to the center. It’s the continuation of the Great Compromiser’s pattern of embracing his rivals, from seeking bipartisan votes for every major legislative action to publicly praising—and more recently invoking—the model of Ronald Reagan.

Conservatives may be surprised to suddenly find President Obama on their turf, but it’s liberals who have more reason for concern. Bill Daley, Obama's new Chief of Staff, has close ties to JP Morgan; Larry Summers’ successor, Gene Sperling, has corporate ties meant to soothe the business community; and though GE’s Jeffrey Immelt appointment as a top economic advisor was meant to show the administration’s commitment to creating jobs, liberal economists note that GE is as much in the “casino-gaming shenangians sector” as Goldman and GMAC.

Following these picks, it isn’t surprising that the president is heading to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. After all, the Chamber is already fully present in the White House.

The objection to the Chamber, of course, is that it claims to want to strengthen our economy, but hardly protects small businesses and does nothing for working families, while defending Big Business interests. As Robert Kuttner notes, “American corporations no longer need America’s workers,” which is why Big Biz can do OK even while regular Americans suffer persistent, pernicious unemployment, wage stagnation and economic insecurity.

So liberals are worried…which may be how Obama wants it. A few angry editorials in the pages of the Huffington Post (assuming HuffPo still runs progressive content after its AOL merger…but that’s another story) is good for Obama. It gives him the street cred to show the Chamber he’s not a darling of the left. He ran the same gambit in the O’Reilly interview, accusing the Wall Street Journal editorial page of being extreme before taking a false-equivalency sucker punch at the New York Times for good measure. With a handful of progressives angry, and a handful of cozy corporate cronies on staff, he should expect a warm reception by the Chamber of Commerce.

Now, will he use that warm reception? Will he challenge the Chamber’s members to create American jobs? Will he challenge outsourcing? Will he make a case for raising workers’ salaries and working standards here at home? Will he call for, in Kuttner’s words, “a constructive economic nationalism”?

There is hope. His State of the Union address showed he would discuss unnecessary tax cuts as wasteful spending and that he was willing to talk a big game about investment—a commitment that the American business community should embrace. If he continues that route and gets the business community to support real jobs for working Americans, then we should embrace his approach as well.

However, Big Business gets big by looking out for its profits over its workers, its community and its contribution to a greater good. Government shouldn’t be fooled into working the same way. We have a Great Compromiser as president. But in a tangle with the business world, we might really need a Great Negotiator.

President Obama held his own with O’Reilly. He disagreed forcefully where it mattered, he proved amiable (and even intentionally boring) when he sought to ease the tensions. But now he’s going from the Fox hole into the Lion’s Den. If the President emerges with a few scars, we’ll know he put up a good fight. If he walks away unscathed, that’s when we should worry. Because that doesn’t mean the lion’s been tamed. It just means the lion didn’t feel threatened enough to strike.

February 07, 2011

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