Obama the pragmatic idealist

Until last week, the nation's late-night comedians were having a hard time coming up with jokes about the Obama administration. The young new president came across as both idealistic and competent, which was nice for the country but a potential disaster for the satire industry.

Tom Daschle took care of that. "A huge scientific breakthrough today," Jay Leno said Monday night. "Researchers say they are very close to finding someone from Obama's Cabinet that has actually paid their taxes."

The next morning, Daschle withdrew his nomination to be President Obama's health czar, and the president manfully took full responsibility for straying from his promise to change the way Washington works -- sort of. His error, Obama said, wasn't nominating Daschle, with all his tax problems, limousine problems and health-industry-client problems -- it was misjudging the public reaction.

"I screwed up in not recognizing the perception," he told CBS.

At least he was being honest. Obama's decision to accept Daschle's withdrawal wasn't the product of a sudden ethical insight; it was a ruthlessly practical political judgment. And that is characteristic of this idealistic president who, in a crunch, turns out to be -- like all successful politicians -- a pragmatist.

After all, Obama had known about Daschle's tax lapses for weeks and about his consulting contracts for years. The question in Obama's mind wasn't whether Daschle's conduct was ethical: He'd already decided it was OK. He abandoned his nominee only when it became clear the public was not so accepting.

Obama fans haven't cared to notice, but pragmatism has been the guiding nonprinciple in plenty of the president's decisions. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner had tax problems too, but Obama correctly calculated that he would skate into office because his mission was too important to let a few tax issues get in the way. Obama's nominee for the No. 2 job at the Pentagon is a defense industry lobbyist, but he fessed up (it was on his resume) and got a waiver.

Obama has had a decidedly practical approach to some of his campaign promises as well. He initially promised to accept public financing and its constraints, only to abandon the pledge -- brilliantly but cynically -- when he found he could out-fundraise any opponent. He offered to meet John McCain in dozens of town meetings, but backed out after thinking it over. He promised Democratic primary voters that he'd vote against legal immunity for telephone companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's wiretapping program, but when the vote came during the general election campaign, he switched sides. While running for office, he promised to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months, but he now says the timetable will depend mostly on conditions on the ground.

None of this is surprising, nor is it necessarily bad. Some Obama supporters cling to their view of him as a saint. They need to get over that. Successful Democratic presidents have always sought a balance of idealism and practicality, and have always been criticized by their left wing for straying from perfection. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton all proclaimed lofty goals and then cut deals. But in Obama's case, the goals were very, very lofty -- and the promise to change the way Washington works was always going to be the most difficult to keep. Last week, he gave up his remaining claim to sainthood but preserved his chance to be a successful president.

That chance now rests on his economic plan, and Obama was right to put that before everything else. Two years from now, voters will know firsthand whether the stimulus worked; they are less likely to remember why Daschle didn't get a Cabinet seat.

In the battle for his economic plan, Obama is struggling to find the balance between pragmatism and idealism -- between his practical short-term goal (jolting the economy back to life) and his ambitious longer-term aims (using the economic crisis to achieve deeper change in education, energy and healthcare). That's one reason he's having unexpected trouble bringing the public along.

In the campaign, Obama rallied most of the nation behind his general message of change, but he's been less effective at persuading voters to embrace the concrete changes he's proposed. A Gallup poll last week found that 75% of the country wants a stimulus but that only 38% support Obama's plan. Republicans cleverly parried his pitch by saying that they too wanted a stimulus, only with more tax cuts and fewer oddball items like contraceptives. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republicans' new star, connected the administration's two headaches by joking that Democrats were happy to support higher taxes "because you know what? They don't pay them."

Obama appeared to hope the Republicans might roll over. When they didn't, he abandoned the dream of bipartisanship and reminded them who won the election. But he didn't answer their attacks as quickly as he could have; he left most of the specifics to the Democratic leadership in Congress, always a risky move.

The question now is how many of his beloved long-term investments in energy, education and healthcare will Obama abandon to get a big stimulus bill passed? If his record is any guide, he'll give up whatever he must to protect the things he cares most about.

Last summer, when Obama abruptly switched sides on the warrantless wiretapping bill, one of his advisors explained the rationale.

"Those who accomplish the most are those who don't make the perfect the enemy of the good," Tom Daschle said then. "Barack is a pragmatist."


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