The Pragmatic President

The air is thick with liberal disappointment. In the days after the debt deal, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to mourn the agreement. But their ire was directed not at the Tea Party or even the Republicans but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a President because of his persistent tendency to compromise.

As the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, this criticism stems from a liberal fantasy that if only the President would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry. In this view, writes Chait, “every known impediment to the legislative process—special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion—are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”

But the idea abides. On Aug. 9, the MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan raged on TV that Obama should just give such a speech, overriding Congress and taking charge. But the most revealing moment came minutes after Ratigan’s rant, when his panel of experts pressed him as to what specifically he would want Obama to do once he had usurped power. Ratigan’s answer: allow corporations to re patriate their overseas profits (presumably by reducing or waiving corporate taxes on the money) to fund a national infrastructure bank. So the great liberal dream is that Obama propose something that he has already proposed and fund it by giving multinationals a tax break.

The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment about Obama. “I have no idea what Barack Obama ... believes on virtually any issue,” Drew Westen writes in the New York Times, confused over Obama’s tendency to take “balanced” positions. Westen hints that his professional experience—he is a psychologist—suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama’s disease. Let me offer a simpler explanation. Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.

Obama passed a large stimulus package within weeks of taking office. Perhaps it should have been bigger, but despite a Democratic House and Senate, it passed by just one vote. He signed into law an unprecedented expansion of regulations in the financial-services industry, though one that did not break up the large banks. He enacted universal health care, through a complex program modeled after Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts. And he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.

Maybe he believes in all these things. Maybe he understands that with a budget deficit of 10% of GDP, the second highest in the industrialized world, and a debt that will rise to almost 100% of GDP in a few years, we cannot cavalierly spend another few trillion dollars hoping that will jump-start the economy. Perhaps he believes that while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world’s largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese. He might understand that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right. Perhaps he understands that getting entitlement costs under control is in fact a crucial part of stabilizing our fiscal situation, and that you do need both tax increases and spending cuts—cuts that are smaller than they appear because they all start with the 2010 budget, which was boosted by the stimulus. Is all this dangerous weakness, incoherence and appeasement, or is it common sense?

My bet is that the American people will see it as the latter. Obama’s temperament was eloquently expressed by the late Bart Giamatti, a former president of Yale and former baseball commissioner, when he urged students not to fall prey to ideology from the right or left and to celebrate the democratic process that balances the two extremes. “My middle view is the view of the centrist,” he said, before quoting law professor Alexander Bickel, “who would ... fix ‘our eyes on that middle distance, where values are provisionally held, are tested, and evolve within the legal order derived ... from the morality of consent.’ To set one’s course by such a centrist view is to leave oneself open to the charges, hurled by the completely faithful of some extreme, of being relativistic, opportunistically flexible, secular, passive, passionless ... Be of good cheer ... To act according to an open and principled pragmatism, to believe in the power of process, is in fact to work for the good.”