Obama could have been a strong centrist, which would have aroused even louder complaints from the Democratic left. Or he could have been a weak progressive, constantly on the retreat. He chose to be the latter. Policy-wise, the result might have been much the same: a stimulus with more tax cuts and less public investment than Democrats wanted and a health-care reform resting much more heavily on the existing private-insurance model than progressives would have liked. The crucial difference is that Obama the muscular centrist could have taken credit for these achievements — which is what they are — in a way that Obama the battered progressive has been unable to.

He would have been able to campaign on them, rather than leaving them unloved and unsold. He would have looked in charge rather than at the mercy of intransigent Republicans. He would have seemed his own man rather than an instrument of Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats. He would have been the president who never stopped trying to fix Washington. Above all, he would have been ideologically aligned with the swing voters who decide elections.

Many in his party would have despised him for it, just as they despised Bill Clinton — whom they now revere — for moving to the center after his midterm setback in 1994. Obama had his 1994 moment in the Democrats’ rout in the 2010 congressional elections. He carried on as though nothing had changed. If anything, he hardened the anticapitalist line around which his campaign for re-election was forming.