The principles and promise of Obamaism.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Jan. 15 2009 7:15 AM

Obama's Grand Bargain

The principles and promise of Obamaism.

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President Elect Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama 

During the 2008 campaign, Slate assembled an encyclopedia of made-up words called Obamaisms. Over the last two months, President-elect Obama himself has begun to define what will soon become a real word: Obamaism.

Unlike past transitions, which have hewn too closely to Dante's definition of limbo as the first circle of hell, the current transition has actually given Obama a chance to show how he will govern. Governing is about making choices, and his have been good ones.

At his farewell press conference on Monday, President Bush reiterated the largely unrealized tenets of his own governing philosophy: compassionate conservatism, changing the tone, and "it's your money," a sad reminder that the people and their government no longer have any. The governing ideals Barack Obama has stressed throughout the transition are refreshing by comparison: pragmatism, post-partisanship, and reform.

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As John Dickerson observes, pragmatism has already become as much the watchword of Obama's presidency as change and hope were the mantras of his campaign. His widely praised choices for the Cabinet and the White House staff are pragmatic and principled, not ideological. In the face of so many unprecedented problems with uncertain answers, they'll have to be.

Pragmatism does not have to limit Obama's horizons. Franklin Roosevelt, who can hardly be accused of modest ambitions, saw pragmatism as a prerequisite of boldness. In a 1932 commencement speech, he called it "bold persistent experimentation" and explained: "It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. ... We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely."

Obama appears to have taken FDR's insight to heart: Americans will be more willing to take a chance on something new if they know they can exchange it if it doesn't work. The current debate about whether America is a center-left or center-right country misses the point. Americans have little enough interest in ideology in ordinary times; at times like this, their overriding loyalty is to what works.

While pragmatism has been a hallmark of most successful presidencies, post-partisanship is mostly uncharted territory. As Ron Brownstein writes in his history of partisan division, a president is the only person in Washington with the power to disrupt the inexorable, bipartisan slide toward partisanship for its own sake.

It's no easy feat for a president to be both leader of his party and above it, but Obama has nothing to lose by trying. His own party is healthy, happy, and vibrant. For a change, the opposing party is the one lost in the wilderness. Economic crisis has erased the old battle lines: Most Americans without regard to party are rooting for the new president to succeed. That honeymoon won't last forever, especially in Washington, but most Americans will stick with a president who puts country before politics, even when they don't always agree with him.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of Obama's governing ambitions, however, is how much his success depends on pressing for fundamental reform. Over the course of the transition, as the nation's economic woes have deepened, the president-elect has spoken with increasing force about the need to transform the government he is about to inherit.

On Sunday, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Obama made clear he envisions a "grand bargain": bold investments to address urgent and long-term economic problems, in return for far-reaching and difficult reforms. "Our challenge is going to be identifying what works and putting more money into that, eliminating things that don't work, and making things that we have more efficient," Obama said. "Everybody's going to have to give. Everybody's going to have to have some skin in the game."

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