The Has-been

Obama’s Grand Bargain

The principles and promise of Obamaism.

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.

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.”

Because reform is hard, the natural tendency of the political system is to spend now, change later. Obama is right to recognize the need to reform as you go. As he said last week, “It is time to trade old habits for a new spirit of responsibility.”

While it will be nice to have another Great Communicator as president, we need a Grand Bargainer even more. Down the road, on every domestic front, a grand and necessary bargain is waiting to happen. Obama has already identified quite a few: paying teachers more in return for measuring performance; expanding access to health care in return for reforms and innovations that hold costs down; increasing energy efficiency and alternatives in return for making sure energy reflects the costs and consequences of carbon emissions; opening college to all in return for asking them to earn their way through it with work or service; passing a rescue package that keeps the financial system sound in return for overhauling financial oversight and regulation; and promoting an economic recovery plan that helps create millions of jobs in return for new transparency in how the money is spent and new accountability for results.

One reform battle the Obama administration will soon face is making clear to Congress that just because we need to run a big deficit this year to ensure a recovery doesn’t mean that all existing spending is a good idea. As Obama promised in his economic speech at George Mason, “We will launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate unwise and unnecessary spending that has never been more unaffordable for our nation and our children’s future than it is right now. We have to make tough choices and smart investments today so that, as the economy recovers, the deficits start coming down. We cannot have a solid recovery if our people and our businesses don’t have confidence that we’re getting our fiscal house in order.”

While pragmatism, post-partisanship, and reform seem to come naturally to Obama, all of them defy the laws of political gravity in Washington, and none of them will be easy. The good news is that if the Obama administration can stick to those principles, each tenet will reinforce the other in a virtuous circle. Doing what works will help disarm attacks and win support from unexpected quarters. Tamping down partisan skirmishes will help put sweeping reforms within reach. Above all, a grand bargain that combines the impact of more resources with more reform will make it possible to solve more problems—which is what we all bargained for from a president in the first place.