With increasing vehemence since the midterm elections, pundits and journalists have recommended Barack Obama move to the right -- and now are citing recent polling to suggest that the president has benefited from following their advice. But there is little evidence that Obama's current approval ratings have anything to do with a rightward shift, and the entire conversation rests on the premise that Obama was governing from the left in the first place.
This is nothing new; there is a long corporate media tradition of urging Democratic presidents to move to the right in order to capture the "center." After the midterm elections, many pundits were encouraging Obama to "pull a Clinton" -- based on the dubious notion that a liberal Bill Clinton, chastened by defeat in 1994, moved to the right and found success (Extra!, 1/11).
Obama's selection of conservative Democrat William Daley as his new chief of staff was seen as representative of some sort of political shift. The Washington Post (1/7/11) offered this somewhat confused explanation:
His moderate views and Wall Street credentials make him an unexpected choice for a president who has railed against corporate irresponsibility and tried, with limited success, to appease restive liberals who think he has not been tough enough on bankers.
Why would it be surprising for someone known for not being "tough enough on bankers" to appoint someone with Wall Street credentials? Daley's center-right views -- not all that different from those of his predecessor, Rahm Emanuel -- should mesh easily with the many members of Obama's economic team who also have Wall Street credentials.
A USA Today piece (1/7/11) was headlined "Daley Choice Puts a Moderate in Play" -- as if there weren't many "moderates" around to begin with. (Emanuel, Daley's predecessor, got similar praise from corporate media for holding views that were not "popular with the Democratic Party's liberal base" -- Time, 11/13/08; FAIR Media Advisory, 11/26/08.) An L.A. Times (1/7/11) assessment, "Obama Chooses Former Clinton Staffers in a Move to the Center," sent a similar message.
Soon enough, the press began touting Obama's rise in the polls as evidence that the public wanted "centrism" as much as the media did. As the L.A. Times explained (1/24/11), Obama "retooled his West Wing to include more moderate voices... and made new overtures to the business community. His polls have rebounded on the eve of his second State of the Union address, passing the 50 percent threshold in a series of major surveys."
On ABC World News (1/23/11), reporter David Kerley declared:
President Obama is much higher in the polls than he was just weeks ago. His charm offensive with business, appointments of business-friendly staff and a productive lame duck session have put him on a roll... Moving to the center, talking about cutting spending, creating jobs is working.
In the run-up to the State of the Union, CNN's Wolf Blitzer declared (1/25/11), "A lot of people say the best advice he got was to move back to the center and start compromising with Republicans." If by "a lot of people," Blitzer means the reporters and pundits who were giving that advice, he's absolutely correct. But he went further:
It's helping him in the polls. There's no doubt about that. You can see, in our most recent job approval number, 55 percent. It was in the 40s, low 40s, not that long ago. So this move to the center, it certainly seems to be helping him with the American public.
Blitzer's guest, comedian Bill Maher, suggested that there was little reason to assume this explains Obama's apparent bump in the polls. Looking at some of the overall trends, it would not appear that Obama's approval ratings have shifted dramatically; Talking Points Memo (1/26/11) finds his approval rating in a wide range of polls now averages 50.1 percent, and that average has never been below 44 percent during his entire presidency. The end of the election season, which produced a torrent of negative advertising directed at Obama and the Democratic Congress, could explain some of the modest shift in the recent numbers, as could Obama's December 22 signing of a bill repealing the unpopular "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Polling bump or not, the media lesson is remarkably consistent. After the State of the Union speech, "Obama Adjusts Course Toward the Center" was the headline at USA Today (1/26/11). Reporter Susan Page declared the night "marked the culmination of a three-month transformation that has rebooted Barack Obama's presidency." The new Obama "proposed more centrist policies in a less combative tone" and was "following the Clinton comeback playbook."
The corporate media know that playbook well by now -- indeed, they largely wrote it -- and they are heartened to see Obama taking their advice.