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What's behind Obama's big shift

He is overseeing the boldest expansion of government in a generation. Is it a 'new pragmatism' right for the times or dangerous overreach by a young president?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2009

President Barack Obama considers the choices to be made during a Thursday, Jan. 29, budget meeting in the White House Roosevelt Room, across the hall from the Oval Office in the White House West Wing.

Pete Souza/ The White House

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On the basketball court, Barack Obama likes the old "up and under" move. When he has the ball, he'll fake one way, wait for the guy who's covering him to jump, then duck under him.

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That observation from Denver sportscaster Vic Lombardi – who lucked into a game of pickup hoops last year with the future leader of the free world – is too juicy to pass up as a possible metaphor for the new president's governing philosophy: Barack Obama likes to keep people guessing.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama refused to embrace an ideology (though as a senator, he was a safe liberal vote). He called himself a "pragmatist," with an eye toward "what works." In January, when Obama introduced the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tim Kaine, he tiptoed a step further, saying that both he and the Virginia governor share a "pragmatic, progressive philosophy."

Now, almost 100 days into his presidency, Obama's track record reveals an ambitious leader, presiding over a massive expansion

of government spending and the boldest intervention of government into the affairs of business since President Truman tried to nationalize the steel industry in 1952.

But Obama's actions in the name of saving the American economy from collapse don't tell the whole story. In fact, says Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House, Republican John McCain would be "doing pretty much exactly the same thing" if he had been elected president last November.

More telling is Obama's determination to advance the agenda he campaigned on – reform of healthcare, energy, and education – while simultaneously dealing with the worst economic crisis in decades. This is by design. "Never allow a crisis to go to waste," chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times days after the November election. "They are opportunities to do big things."

But even while trying to do big things, Obama has shown a pragmatic side. Instead of blowing up the status quo and starting over in fashioning healthcare and financial reforms, he aims to build on what already exists. Pragmatism seeped into personnel choices as well. To the chagrin of some antiwar activists, he retained President Bush's Defense secretary, Robert Gates. His decision to put Timothy Geithner, who has deep ties to Wall Street, in at Treasury rankled populist sentiment. Obama selected both men precisely because of their experience with the urgent matters on his plate on Inauguration Day.