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?
(Page 4 of 4)
Jerry Kellman, Obama's boss back in his community organizing days, sees the new president applying the basic skills he learned in that role.Skip to next paragraph
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"Facilitating groups, getting them to reach conclusions at a very elementary level, that's been his experience from the beginning," says Mr. Kellman. "One of the things about Barack is he's a very quick learner. And he's not afraid to change his mind."
As president of the Harvard Law Review, he led by consensus and was known for listening to all sides of an issue without revealing much of his own point of view, sometimes leading people to think he agreed with them. In the Illinois Legislature, he learned to fit in by playing poker and golf with fellow members. One of the knocks on Obama, as he worked his way up through Illinois politics, is that he never took on the "machine."
As president, the nearest version of a "machine" that he faces may be the Democratic leadership of Congress – indeed, from his own party, but very much working its own agenda.
Obama's style in White House meetings is to make sure everyone at the table has his or her say. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama's only cabinet member to stay on from the Bush administration, said on "Meet the Press" last month that Obama "is somewhat more analytical" than Bush.
If someone doesn't speak up in a meeting, "he calls on them," said Mr. Gates.
Not one to sit brooding in the Oval Office for hours on end or holed up in endless meetings, Obama likes to get out and talk to staff and keep up on office buzz. His gravest concern over becoming president, it seemed, was not taking on the severe problems the country faces – he says he welcomes the challenge – but the danger of his losing touch. He relies on his colleagues to keep him up to speed with what's happening out in the world, and to be honest. His BlackBerry is ever present.
Every day, staff members cull through the tens of thousands of letters he receives from ordinary Americans, and select 10 for him to read. Sometimes, he refers to a person he has heard from and asks in a meeting, "Will this help that person?" says a senior aide.
Obama also keeps famously long hours – up at 5:30 a.m. to work out and up late reading briefing books.
Attention to the minutiae of daily life in the White House – now dominated by the arrival of "first dog" Bo – belies the import of the times.
Historians liken this period not only to 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt became president amid the Great Depression, but also 1965 following Lyndon Johnson's election in a landslide after the assassination of President Kennedy. President Johnson had the political capital and strong congressional majorities necessary to push through such landmark programs as the Voting Rights Act and Medicare.
"In a sense, he used that crisis to pass his agenda," says a congressional aide, who fast-forwards to today: "If you have popularity, you have Congress, you have items that are popular, it doesn't make sense to say, 'Well, I'm going to wait.' You don't get these moments every day."