The ideologue in the Oval Office

White House Photo/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama talks to White House speechwriters about an upcoming speech, in the Oval Office, June 9, 2009.

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"I think increasingly the American people are going to say to themselves, 'You know what? If a party or a politician is constantly taking the position my-way-or-the-highway, constantly being locked into ideologically rigid positions, that we're going to remember at the polls,'" President Obama said at his Friday news conference.

I know everyone is sick of hearing about the debt-limit negotiations. Lord knows I am. When I turn on the news these days, I feel like one of the passengers seated next to Robert Hays in the movie "Airplane!" By the time we get to the phrase "in the out years," I'm ready to pour a can of gasoline over my head.Still, regardless of how things turn out with the negotiations, what we are witnessing is the rollout of the Obama reelection campaign's theme: Obama is the pragmatic voice of reason holding the ideologues at bay.

So it's worth asking, before this branding campaign gels into the conventional wisdom: Who is the real ideologue here?

"We are witnessing the rollout of the Obama reelection campaign's theme: Obama is the pragmatic voice of reason holding the ideologues at bay." -- Jonah Goldberg

The president, we are told, is a pragmatist for wanting a "fair and balanced" budget deal. What that means is tax increases must accompany spending cuts. Any significant spending cuts would be way in the future. The tax increases would begin right after Obama is reelected.

Now keep in mind that tax hikes (or what the administration calls "revenue increases") are Obama's idee fixe. He campaigned on raising taxes for millionaires and billionaires (defined in the small print as people making more than $200,000 a year or couples making $250,000).

During a primary debate, he was asked by ABC's Charles Gibson if he would raise the capital gains tax even if he knew that cutting it would generate more revenue for the government. The non-ideologue responded that raising the tax, even if doing so would lower revenue, might be warranted out of "fairness." As he said to Joe the Plumber, things are better when you "spread the wealth around."

Earlier last week, referring to the fact that he is rich, the president said: "I do not want, and I will not accept, a deal in which I am asked to do nothing. In fact, I'm able to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income that I don't need."

Leaving aside the fact that the man lives in public housing and has a government jet at his disposal -- so his definition of "need" might be a bit out of whack -- what is pragmatic about this position?

Obama says that Republicans are rigid ideologues because they won't put "everything on the table." Specifically, they won't consider tax hikes, even though polls suggest Americans wouldn't mind soaking "the rich," "big oil" and "corporate jet owners."

But Obama hasn't put everything on the table either. He's walled off "Obamacare" and the rest of his "winning the future" agenda.

If Obama believes the American people are the voice of reason when it comes to tax hikes, why does their opinion count for nothing when it comes to Obamacare, which has never been popular? (According to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, only 38.6% of voters favor the plan.) Why not look for some savings there?

Consider the frustration of the supposedly ideologically locked-in GOP Congress. In 2008, the national debt was 40% of GDP. Now it's more than 60%, and it is projected to reach 75% next year, all thanks to a sour economy the GOP feels Obama made worse with incontinent spending.

Republicans won a historic election last November campaigning against the spending, borrowing, tax hikes and Obamacare. Yet Obama's position is that the Republicans are deranged dogmatists because they don't want to raise taxes or borrow more money to pay for spending they opposed. And Obama is flexible because he refuses to revisit a program that has never been popular.

Meanwhile, the sole example of Obama's pragmatism -- that he has publicly acknowledged -- is his openness to means-testing Medicare, which may not be a bad idea. But Obama's support for it rests entirely on the fact that it would continue to tax upper-income people for benefits they will no longer receive. So, in addition to taxing the "rich" more, he also wants to give them less.

I know why liberals would support that, but for the life of me I can't see how it's non-ideological.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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