President-elect Barack Obama said recently that overhauling Social Security and Medicare would be central to his effort to curb federal spending.
That struck me as odd for two reasons. I don't recall any extended discussion of entitlement reform during the campaign, and the idea that federal spending will be curbed strains credulity in the face of the massive stimulus package taking shape.
It's a strange moment. I can't recall any previous incoming president whose agenda and persona seemed more fuzzy.
Despite the long campaign, Obama remains something of an enigma: community organizer, state senator, U.S. senator, presidential candidate and ultimate victor, a man with a scant resume on whom the nation's hopes now ride.
Inaugurations of new presidents are always hopeful interludes. The beginning of a new administration also implies a new era, the crossing of a certain threshold. That's especially true this time, thanks to the reeling economy and the profound sense of continuing crisis.
But the new era that's about to dawn is - like Obama himself - extraordinarily ill-defined.
"They ran on change and were reticent about specifying what that change is going to be," said Missouri State University political scientist George Connor. "I think that was a conscious decision on the part of the Obama campaign. Even their specifics weren't that specific."
Even at this late date, what Obama will do as president remains murky. In recent weeks, he has backed away from many of his most liberal campaign promises, among them: pledges to impose a windfall profits tax on oil, withdraw rapidly from Iraq, allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military, raise taxes on the wealthy and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Treaty.
He has appointed a Cabinet comprising largely well-known, competent centrists, to the acute discomfort of his allies on the left.
"Isn't there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration?" complained OpenLeft blogger Chris Bowers.
Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future told Politico, "There's a concern that he keep his basic promises, and people are going to watch him."
Backing away from liberal campaign promises, in my opinion, is a good beginning. But it's too early to say that the man judged the most liberal senator in 2007 by the National Journal has become a closet centrist.
Once the economy is on a more even keel, he's not likely to back away from other key pledges. Government intervention into health care will increase massively. Those tax increases on families making more than $250,000 have only been delayed, not abandoned.
The massive stimulus package poses a grave danger if a huge spending increase becomes permanently embedded in the federal budget. That will lead to a permanently higher level of taxation and a lot less prosperity in the future.
A decade ago, the free market was in ascendancy. As Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw wrote in "The Commanding Heights," "All around the globe, socialists are embracing capitalism, governments are selling off companies they had previously nationalized and countries are seeking to entice back multinational corporations that they had expelled just two decades earlier. ... Today, politicians on the left admit that their governments can no longer afford the expansive welfare state, and American liberals recognize that more government may not hold the solution to every problem."
Today that time - the late 1990s - seems quaint. The pendulum has swung back to another worldview, and Washington is now dominated by many who believe that, indeed, the solution to almost every problem is more government. Time will tell how it works out.
Obama certainly deserves every chance of success, but he's more likely to find it if he sticks to his recently discovered centrist leanings.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board.