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?

Pete Souza/ The White House
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
President Obama meets with congressional Democratic leaders in the Oval Office after taking office.

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.

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.

"There's a longstanding sense that pragmatism is the foundational American ideology, and Obama wants to be understood as a classic American pragmatist," says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But under these circumstances, I think aggressive pragmatism is the right term. The government now has a stronger whip hand than it has had in 30 years to recraft the American economy."

The big question surrounding Obama is whether his presidency will herald a new progressive era in American politics, much the way the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan launched a conservative era.

Obama's election with a solid majority of the popular vote and the Democrats' expanded majorities in both houses of Congress arguably give Obama even more power than Reagan had. Republicans never controlled the House during the Reagan years, though Reagan's successful wooing of conservative Democrats gave him a working majority.

By 2008, President Bush's deep unpopularity during most of his second term, because of Iraq and the mishandling of hurricane Katrina, and, by the end of the term, the collapse of the American financial system, made the election of a Democratic president likely. If Obama's fixes turn the economy around (or even if the economy turns around regardless of his measures), he will get the credit and head into his reelection campaign in 2012 in good shape. But it's far too early to speak of an "Obama era."

"Is this, in fact, the kind of hinge point in history where we go through a cycle of activist government – where the cast of mind of the country shifts and changes in a way that's considerably more liberal than it has been?" asks Peter Wehner, a political adviser in the second Bush White House.

"Another possibility is that Obama and Obamaism are a tonic for conservatives and the Republican Party, and he overreaches and governs with a mandate that he really didn't earn in the election, and that revives conservatism in a way that no one would have anticipated a year or two ago."

By one measure, a revival of conservatism does not appear imminent. In a poll released this month, Rasmussen Reports found that just 53 percent of Americans say that capitalism is better than socialism (with 20 percent choosing socialism and 27 percent unsure). Among adults under 30, the numbers are roughly even, with 37 percent preferring capitalism, 33 percent preferring socialism, and 30 percent undecided.

This blow to faith in capitalism is remarkable but understandable, given the state of the economy. And it's possible that capitalism regains favor as the economy recovers. But for now, charges from conservatives that Obama is a socialist or even Marxist (if you're Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck) are hardly hurting his job approval ratings, which are steadily above 60 percent.

William Galston, who served the Clinton White House as a domestic policy adviser, sees Obama as one click to the left of President Clinton. If Clinton was a centrist, operating on the conservative playing field established by two terms of Reagan and one term of George H.W. Bush, then Obama is center-left, says Mr. Galston, now chair of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

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.

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.

Jerry Kellman, Obama's boss back in his community organizing days, sees the new president applying the basic skills he learned in that role.

"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."

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