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Scot Lehigh

Obama’s olive branch

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / February 9, 2011

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IT’S A simple message President Obama is sending as he begins the second half of his term: I’m a reasonable guy, ready to reach across ideological divisions to address the country’s problems, just the way the American people want.

You could see it in Obama’s speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, his Sunday pre-Super Bowl interview with the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, and, of course, in his State of the Union speech.

It’s a message with a distinct subtext: A little perspective, folks, please.

But perspective is what too much of the right has lost when it comes to this president. O’Reilly got at something when he noted that “so many people hate you.’’ Even as the GOP looks reverentially back at Ronald Reagan, too many conservatives have spurned the Gipper’s gentlemanly, jovial, friends-after-five style of politics.

Instead, an invidious effluvium rises from the fever swamps of the party’s right wing, where there’s a repeated effort to portray Obama’s pragmatic liberalism as fascism, socialism, or communism, the better to paint him as outside the traditional boundaries of American politics. (Those swamps are represented on the very cable network where O’Reilly plays the gruff grown-up by the pixilated Glenn Beck and the poisonous Sean Hannity.)

For his part, O’Reilly used a Wall Street Journal editorial as a foil for asking Obama whether ObamaCare made him a determined leftist income-redistributionist. Now, as every student of public policy realizes, any public budget, particularly one funded in part by a progressive income tax, redistributes income to some degree. So, too, to some degree, will a health care overhaul that relies on subsidies to help moderate earners purchase insurance and which is funded in part by an increase in Medicare taxes on upper earners.

That, however, hardly constitutes a determined effort at income redistribution. Further, the notion that a health care reform based on private insurance and an individual mandate — that is, a plan that is not only not single payer but which lacks even a public option — represents some sort of socialistic government takeover is silliness on stilts. But instead of sharpening its own rhetoric, the White House is adopting a kill-them-with-kindness — or perhaps a render-them-risible-with-reasonableness — approach.

Thus Sunday saw Obama good-naturedly parrying O’Reilly’s attempts at ideological caricature, and on Monday, offering an olive branch to his frequent and fierce critics at the Chamber.

In that speech, Obama made an observation that should be obvious: Some business regulation is necessary to “protect the American people from harm or exploitation.’’ He also offered some instructive examples of reflexive private-sector overreaction, noting that early drug company executives had predicted the FDA would “practically destroy’’ their sales and that some US auto industry executives had even protested the move to require seatbelts in vehicles.

Obama might also have cited the heated opposition to sensible re-regulation after the financial sector’s recklessness gave the lie to the notion that institutional prudence would deter excessive risk-taking. Instead, he contented himself with noting that “the absence of sound rules of the road’’ had had ill effects “even if you weren’t in the financial sector.’’ Talk of your diplomatic understatement!

The overarching message, however, was clear. The president appreciates the private sector, sees government playing a supporting role, and stands ready to cooperate when and where he can with business.

“They are trying to show that they are inclusive, that they understand the importance of business, that they are going to meet people halfway,’’ says one person privy to the White House’s approach. That approach, which has dismayed some left-wingers, is the same that the White House has taken toward the newly resurgent congressional Republicans.

One could interpret that as nothing but political posturing — except that his public professions pretty much reflect who Obama is. The chamber may not buy it, and combative conservatives certainly never will.

But in the final analysis, they don’t have to. For though the president may be speaking directly to his critics, he obviously has a different — and much more important — audience uppermost in mind. And that’s the broad American middle.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.