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What If Obama Had Turned to the Middle?

August 29, 2012

In a rare moment of senior-presidential-adviser-to-senior-presidential-adviser telepathy, I overheard the private thoughts of David Plouffe as he prepared for the Democratic National Convention. But I may have channeled a different David Plouffe—one who exists in an alternate reality that experienced different presidential decisions after Jan. 20, 2009.

Charlotte will be great. Huge crowds, lots of enthusiasm, a second-term agenda in place, and a growing lead in the polls. It all points to a big win in eight weeks.

Who would have thought we'd be in such good shape after Democrats got walloped so badly in 2010? But the midterms were the start of the turnaround.

I get it that ObamaCare and stimulus spending cost us big at the polls then. And ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich in 2009 probably didn't help Democrats as much as we thought it would. But Barack couldn't leave 'em in place and keep bitching about "the policies that got us into this mess in the first place."

I'll let the economists argue about whether raising taxes on the rich really hurt the economy. But passing immigration reform kept us from losing even more seats and locked in the Hispanic vote, I know that.

Still, it was those ballsy moves by the Boss after the midterms—pivoting to the center and getting troublesome issues out of the way in the lame duck—that put us in such good shape. Thank goodness he ignored Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid's moronic advice that a debt-ceiling fight would be good and force the House GOP to take "partial ownership of the issue."

Instead, the Boss pushed through the debt-ceiling increase while we had the votes in Congress. Who knows, he may have saved America from a credit downgrade.

But Barack's best moment may have been the 2011 State of the Union address, when he endorsed the spending, budget and tax-reform recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. By bringing together Democrats and Republicans, he showed he was serious about deficit reduction. He not only relied on Tom Coburn to help forge a bipartisan compromise in the House, he corralled that bright young Republican budget wizard from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, who, it turned out, had a few good ideas.

Best thing was, we didn't try for a grand bargain. Just put together bills with different parts of Bowles-Simpson, cobbled together different coalitions for each of them, and passed what we could. It was a start, and maybe we can do more in Barack's second term.

It was both good policy and good politics. Starting to put the government's fiscal house in order disarmed critics. It made the president look bigger and his critics smaller.

Elections are always about the future, so the Boss made tax reform the centerpiece of his 2012 State of the Union. Barack didn't expect it to pass in an election year, but it was a big idea around which to rally Americans. And it beat the heck out of the argument advanced by some of my West Wing colleagues that he should focus on high-speed rail, high-speed Internet and "countless green jobs." That was advice Barack rejected.

Admittedly, Barack's tax reforms are more Bill Bradley center-left and less Jack Kemp center-right. But everyone—and I mean everyone—knows the tax code is a mess. Having the president take it on gave corporate America more confidence in him and a reason to stay on his good side and on the political sideline.

Yeah, the economy is still rusty and jobs aren't coming back as quick as we'd like. Unemployment stuck too high, growth anemic, recovery the weakest since World War II, blah blah blah. But at least Barack is doing something.

Of course, no one expected a political guy like me to argue that the more time Barack spent governing and the less on politics, the stronger we'd be politically and the bigger he'd now look compared with his Republican opponents. Barack's biggest advantage is being president, not being a candidate. Rejecting Axelrod & Company's counsel to take the low road and spend more time raising money showed how savvy the Boss is.

Few thought Barack could pivot to the center even better than Clinton, but he did. And so we are sitting pretty, with a solid lead and increasingly desperate Republicans. After Charlotte, we'll turn on the afterburners, build on our advantages, and plan for the second inaugural.

I'm a lucky man. A few wrong decisions by Barack and things could have turned out so much worse.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 29, 2012.

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