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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?

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The difference can be exemplified in welfare policy. With a stroke of his pen, Obama's stimulus plan replenished social safety-net programs that had been shrinking since the start of the Reagan era. In the conservative critique, Obama has undone the 1996 welfare reform signed by Clinton, which put limits on aid and instituted work requirements. Conservatives argue that with the massive infusion of money, states now have an incentive to expand welfare rolls. Democrats argue that money targeted at the most vulnerable is essential at a time of crisis – and will be spent, not saved, thus stimulating the economy.

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Most Americans are immune to the ideological dimension of Obama's emergency policies. They just want the economy to get better.

Outside domestic policy, Obama has taken approaches that conservatives find reassuring (such as those on Iraq and Afghanistan) and irk some on the left. He also has a mixed record in the legal dimension of fighting Al Qaeda: His administration has signaled support for some of Bush's controversial policies, even as Obama banned harsh interrogations and ordered the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. On the international stage, Obama's splashy debut earlier this month left many Americans hopeful about the US's image abroad, while conservatives worried he looked naive.

It's possible, at least in his approach to what used to be called the global war on terror, Obama is again exercising his pragmatic streak by saving his fire for domestic policy. And it's also possible that, by not always pleasing liberals and displeasing conservatives, he's finding his own center.

David Sirota, the left-wing columnist and activist, exemplifies the mixed emotions. He is pleased with Obama's domestic agenda, with one big exception: his plan to reregulate the financial system, which Mr. Sirota believes needs a more fundamental overhaul.

"What's discouraging is their attitude in general toward confronting Wall Street," Sirota says. But he's not surprised. He spent a day with Obama in 2006, and reached a conclusion: Obama is a reformer, not a revolutionary.

INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE"Personally, it's like being shot out of a cannon."

That observation on the first few weeks at the Obama White House comes from Melody Barnes, director of the domestic policy council. "One of the things I realized during that period that you can't underestimate: Governing doesn't take a holiday. There's a peaceful transfer of power, and then you have to keep moving. The government doesn't care if you have dry-cleaning or your whole family's in town."

At least Obama doesn't have to pick up his dry-cleaning. But, as the top guy, he didn't have much margin for error. And after the grueling primary and general election campaigns, in which the main argument against Obama was his youth and inexperience, the heat was on to look authoritative from Day 1.

The excitement around the inauguration of the nation's first black president "lasted about a day," as Obama put it. Then the hard business of governing began. Longtime observers of Obama aren't surprised that he seems to have taken to the role, and, even with limited prior executive experience, he's using all the tools in his kit.