Pay freeze the beginning of Clintonian triangulation strategy?

Before the midterms swept aside the Democratic majority in the House, many wondered whether Barack Obama had the sense and the willingness to emulate Bill Clinton and move to the center after losing part or all of Congress.   Obama campaigned as a post-partisan moderate but governed as a hard-Left ideologue in his first two years.  After the midterms, Obama admitted getting “shellacked” by the vote and urged bipartisan cooperation, but framed it as cooperation on his agenda rather than moving himself toward the Republicans.

Yesterday, though, Obama adopted one of the least painful demands for fiscal discipline from the GOP in announcing a pay freeze for non-military federal workers.  Jonathan Allen and Jake Sherman argue in Politico that this demonstrates Obama’s intent to execute a Clintonian triangulation strategy over the next two years:

President Barack Obama’s embrace of the politically symbolic two-year freeze on federal government salaries aligns him with House Republican leaders and against unions, public workers and some leaders in his own party.

A winner of incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YouCut online spending-cut poll in May, the proposal would require the House and Senate, at the last minute, to include the freeze in any long-term federal spending bill dealing with the slate of unfinished fiscal 2011 appropriations laws.

The president’s adoption of a GOP proposal that goes straight to the ideological divide between the parties — the size, scope and value of government — could be an early sign of White House efforts to move toward the political center in advance of the 2012 election.

It infuriated union leaders, some rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers and even a handful of Republicans — few of whom saw it coming — and thus put the president squarely to the political right of liberals and other labor allies. The word “triangulation” — a reference to President Bill Clinton’s practice of calibrating positions to distance him from both the political and left and the political right — floated through the corridors of Congress on Monday.

Could this be the start of a triangulation strategy?  Yes, but it could also be the end of Obama’s triangulation as well.  The pay freeze is hardly a monumental move towards the center.  It involves five billion dollars in savings over two years, or roughly 0.3% of the $1.3 trillion deficit from a single year in Obama’s budget.  It’s the lowest-hanging fruit in the bipartisan orchard.

Obama hasn’t yet had to deal with serious disapproval from the unions, either.  They’re blasting him for merely freezing wages, not reductions in force.  It’s a warning shot to go no further.  Bill Clinton, on the other hand, actually broke hard with the Left over welfare reform to earn some stripes as a centrist.  Will Obama show that kind of courage on serious cuts in government and entitlements, especially when his base is the only support he has at this point in his term?  It’s possible, but so far in his term Obama has shown no such fortitude.

After all the speculation, it’s certainly tempting to see a trend towards triangulation in a single and decidedly minor data point.  When Obama takes a serious political risk to shrink government and the regulatory regime, then we can talk about Clintonian triangulation strategies.  The pay freeze is nothing more than public relations.