An Eternal Optimist -- But Not A Sap

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After the trials and triumphs of his tumultuous first weeks, President Obama appears increasingly focused on ends, not means. In a conversation early Friday evening with a small group of columnists, Obama was flexible about tactics and unwavering in his goals. He signaled that he's open to consultation, compromise and readjusting his course to build inclusive coalitions, but fixed on the results he intends to produce. "My bottom line is not how pretty the process was," he said, looking back at the congressional fight over his economic recovery package. "My bottom line was: Am I getting help to people who need it?"


Obama spoke on Air Force One as he flew to Chicago for a three-day weekend. Just before he sat down, the House had approved his massive economic plan without a single Republican vote, just as when the plan initially cleared the chamber in January. While he talked, the Senate had begun the vote that would approve the package Friday night with support from just three Republicans.


Obama was relaxed, responsive and, as usual, seemed preternaturally calm and unruffled. He understandably celebrated his legislative victory; the scope of the economic plan and the speed of its approval were equally unprecedented. The plan funds the public investments (like scientific research, infrastructure and education) that Democrats consider essential to long-term growth with more new money than Washington has provided at one time since at least the 1960s and maybe the 1930s. And the vote demonstrated far more unity among congressional Democrats than Bill Clinton was able to generate for his economic agenda in 1993. "The end product is not 100 percent of what we would want," Obama said. "But I think it is a very good start on moving things forward."


Yet Obama held no illusions about the scale of the challenges he faces, both economic and political. One of those challenges was the overwhelming Republican resistance to his plan, which frustrated his campaign hopes of quickly bridging Washington's ideological and partisan divides. Obama seemed to split that opposition into several categories. Some of it was ideological: "I think that there were some senators and House members who have a sincere philosophical difference with the idea of any government role in boosting demand in the economy. They don't believe in [economist John Maynard] Keynes and they are still fighting FDR." Some was tactical: "I also think that there was a decision made... where [Republican leaders] said... 'If we can enforce conformity among our ranks, then it will invigorate our base and will potentially give us some political advantage either short-term or long-term." He paused. "Whether that's a smart strategy, I think you should ask them."


Obama said the near-unanimous Republican opposition, after all his meetings with GOP legislators, would not discourage him from reaching out again on other issues. "Going forward, each and every time we've got an initiative, I am going to go to both Democrats and Republicans and I'm going to say, 'Here is my best argument for why we need to do this. I want to listen to your counterarguments, if you've got better ideas, present them, we will incorporate them into any plans that we make and we are willing to compromise on certain issues that are important to one side or the other in order to get stuff done,'" he said.


Cooperation on the economic agenda, he suggested, may have been unusually difficult because it "touched on... one of the core differences between Democrats and Republicans" -- whether tax cuts or public spending can best stimulate growth. He predicted there may be greater opportunity for cooperation on issues such as the budget, entitlements and foreign policy. And if he keeps reaching out, he speculated, Republicans may face "some countervailing pressures" from the public "to work in a more constructive way." White House aides suggest that regardless of how congressional Republicans react on upcoming issues, Obama will pursue alliances with Republican governors and Republican-leaning business groups and leaders.


Yet while promising to continue to seek peace with congressional Republicans, Obama also made clear he's prepared for the alternative. "I am an eternal optimist [but] that doesn't mean I'm a sap," he said pointedly. "So my goal is to assume the best but prepare for a whole range of different possibilities in terms of how Congress reacts."


Obama displayed the same instinct -- clarity about his goals, flexibility about his tactics -- in discussing the plan Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled this week to stabilize the banking and credit system. In the conversation, Obama reprised some of the arguments he's raised to defend the plan from the widespread reaction on Wall Street and Capitol Hill that it lacked specifics. But most interesting was the way he described the proposal as a work in progress that inexorably will evolve as conditions do. "Here's the bottom line," he said. "We will do what works. It is going to take time to lay out every aspect of this plan, and there are going to be certain aspects of any plan... which will require reevaluation and... some experimentation -- [a sense that] if that doesn't work, then you do something else."

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Cyra Master

Cyra Master is a W.E.B. Du Bois fellow at the Atlantic. Previously, she was an editor at the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy and was a reporter for the New Hampshire Eagle Tribune. She is a graduate of Emerson College.
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