[F]iscal restraint is now the animating issue for moderate Americans. To take the looming $9 trillion in debt and balloon it further would be to enrage a giant part of the electorate.
This is a country that has always been suspicious of centralized government. This is a country that has just lived through an economic trauma caused by excessive spending and debt. Most Americans still admire Obama and want him to succeed. But if he doesn't proceed in a manner consistent with the spirit of the nation and the times, voters will find a way to stop him.
The president's challenge now is to halt the slide. That doesn't mean giving up his goals. It means he has to align his proposals to the values of the political center: fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority.
That's quite a different tune than Brooks was singing last September, when he was screaming at the "nihilists" who voted against the bailout (for a few days, anyway), saying:
They still think the biggest threat comes from socialism and Walter Mondale liberalism. They seem not to have noticed how global capital flows have transformed our political economy.
We're living in an age when a vast excess of capital sloshes around the world fueling cycles of bubble and bust. When the capital floods into a sector or economy, it washes away sober business practices, and habits of discipline and self-denial. Then the money managers panic and it sloshes out, punishing the just and unjust alike.
What we need in this situation is authority. Not heavy-handed government regulation, but the steady and powerful hand of some public institutions that can guard against the corrupting influences of sloppy money and then prevent destructive contagions when the credit dries up.
Brooks' belated shout-out to "individual choice and decentralized authority" would have certainly been welcome during the two terms of a presidency that largely embraced Brooksian values of spreading democracy at gunpoint and bribing middle class voters with government goodies. Instead, he spent the Bush years fighting the libertarians in his head, and proudly heralding "the death of small-government conservatism" as we know it. Better opportunistic than never, I suppose.
UPDATE: Great new piece in The New Republic on "The Courtship" between David Brooks and Barack Obama. Sample:
"I don't want to sound like I'm bragging," Brooks recently told me, "but usually when I talk to senators, while they may know a policy area better than me, they generally don't know political philosophy better than me. I got the sense he knew both better than me."
That first encounter is still vivid in Brooks's mind. "I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant," Brooks says, "and I'm thinking, a) he's going to be president and b) he'll be a very good president." In the fall of 2006, two days after Obama's The Audacity of Hope hit bookstores, Brooks published a glowing Times column. The headline was "Run, Barack, Run."
These days, the center-right Brooks frequently seems more sympathetic toward Obama than the liberal Paul Krugman. He has written columns praising Obama's Afghanistan policy, education proposals, and economic team. Even on broad areas of disagreement–deficit spending, the sprawling stimulus bill, health care reform–Brooks tends to treat Obama and his administration with respect. "My overall view," Brooks told me, "is ninety-five percent of the decisions they make are good and intelligent. Whether I agree with them specifically, I think they're very serious and very good at what they do."