How Obama will write and rewrite his presidency.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 13 2009 6:13 PM

Palimpsest President

How Obama will write and rewrite his presidency.

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Obama didn't spend a lot of time during the presidential campaign talking about his inner feelings, but it was clear when he did that he'd been taking careful soundings all along, not just about the circumstances but about his emotional landscape. When he told his best story of the campaign—the "fired up and ready to go" anecdote about being lifted out of the gloom of his early campaign—it was rich with careful detail, even if some of those details were clearly embroidered for effect.

Obama is prospecting and sifting so regularly, he seems to be analyzing his words and cadences even as he speaks. "I think that the themes are consistent," he said last year about speaking in a black church. "I think that there's a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience because of the audience response. It's the classic call and response. Anybody who's spent time in a black church knows what I mean. And so you get a little looser; it becomes a little more like jazz and a little less like a set score." Even his restaurant reviews have multiple layers. (He would make a great blogger).

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Obama's penchant for writing and rewriting his story as he's living it has echoes in the policy world as well. Each new president is a work in progress as his policy is matched up to his rhetoric. But Obama seems particularly unpredictable. Pragmatic is becoming the word of his presidency the way change and hope were the words of his campaign. He'll trade away provisions like the $3,000 business tax credit that was once the heart of his stimulus package if the moment calls for it. The left and the right don't quite know what to make of him. He is, as John Heilemann wrote in New York magazine, a party of one.

Obama's natural inclinations are amplified by the nature of the times, which call for ever-changing, on-the-fly policymaking—and the country seems to be in a position to tolerate it. Obama has been reading up on FDR's presidency, which included lots of experimentation and embracing and discarding of entire ideologies. "I experimented with gold and that was a flop," Roosevelt laughed in a conversation with senators about monetary policy. "Why shouldn't I experiment a little with silver?" The current crises may allow President Obama to try out ideas and approaches with the same mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm as he tried on identities as a young man.

How can this help Obama? It may make him more empathetic; since he recognizes the personal roots of his own style of politics, he may be more likely to see others' motivations as well. Bush was a firm believer in his ability to size up someone else's political price, too—but the difference is that while Bush thought he knew what they wanted, Obama thinks he knows what they need.

The danger for politicians who practice excessive pragmatism is that it's hard to know where they stand. Their ability to persuade diminishes as everyone waits for them to change their minds. Just as Obama's flexibility is praised in the wake of Bush's lack of the same, it will almost certainly be criticized. We won't know whether that criticism is justified until Obama actually starts performing in office.

The other rap against thoughtful politicians is that it dooms them to inaction. This would seem to be a proposition no longer worth debating in Obama's case. Still, for those who don't see his election at 47—against considerable odds—to be evidence that he can take action when he needs to, the speed of transition operation should offer sufficient proof that he can make decisions in a snappy fashion.

The question with George Bush was often, Is there anything more complex going on behind that facade? In a lot of ways, it turns out, there wasn't. What you saw—such as Monday's press conference—was pretty close to the complete picture. With Obama, the question is, How much of his true thinking is he actually sharing with us? Thus will we usher in a new era of analysis and observation about what's really going on inside the president's head. If Obama is true to form, he'll be engaged in the task along with the rest of us.