Get Over It: This Is Who Obama Is

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From his community organizing days to the Illinois State Senate, Barack Obama has always put pragmatic deal-making above ideology, even when it angered allies

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As President Obama is pilloried by the left, including by bloggers and editorial writers, for supposedly selling them out during debt ceiling negotiations, a reality check is desperately needed.

Get over it, guys and gals, and remember whom you're fuming over: a deal-making community organizer.

Recognize this man? In a showdown with ideological enemies, he fashioned compromises which made some Democratic allies apoplectic. Republicans weren't happy, either, with what he wrought but grudgingly realized there were few alternatives.

Throughout he exhibited a preternatural calm, always seeking some common ground among disparate interests as if compromise was a goal in and of itself, not any diminution of principle as some Democrats thought.

Yes, that's our president, the man at the center of the improbable Debt Debate of 2011. But it was also State Senator Barack Obama a decade ago. The equally rancorous issue back then was the death penalty and the setting was the Illinois legislature. Not much about him has changed.

"His ideological inclinations are liberal but, as far as being a politician, he's about getting things done. He was always pragmatic and about getting things done," said Peter Baroni, a Republican attorney-law professor-lobbyist in Chicago who had a bird's eye view of Obama while serving as legal counsel to Republicans in the Illinois Senate and to its Judiciary Committee.

The death penalty was a big and tough matter in Illinois, especially amid mountainous evidence of men sitting on Death Row for crimes they did not commit. It was also a typical example of the Obama modus operandi during a period in which Illinois had at times the same sort of divided government he now faces on Capitol Hill.

Obama shepherded key proposed changes in the state's criminal law, including the sensitive matter of taping interrogations of homicide suspects, all the while having cozy late-night poker games with legislative buddies, including conservative Republicans. He wanted to pass a bill and, to do so, couldn't alienate too many Republicans and their law enforcement allies. Prosecutors and cops were dubious, if not downright opposed initially, to much of what he sought, notably the taping of interrogations to cut down on forced confessions and even alleged outright brutality by cops.

His ideological allies at the American Civil Liberties Union wanted the videotaping of all homicide interrogations of suspects and a blanket exclusionary rule. That meant that any evidence obtained from an interview that wasn't videotaped would be excluded. Prosecutors and cops said no.

After many dozens of meetings in which "the guy never broke a sweat," said Baroni, the end result was agreement to record interrogations, either by video or audio means. But the final deal had a litany of exceptions, including one allowing admission of a statement by a homicide suspect that wasn't recorded if it was voluntarily given. Those exceptions were the counterpart of today's proposed spending cuts driving some Democrats batty.

His M.O. was very much the same when it came to an important racial profiling bill he successfully steered, too. It required police to note the race of every driver they stop. They weren't happy but Obama got it through and, wouldn't you know, the percentage of African-Americans who are stopped has declined.

For sure, as now, he had a clear left-leaning ideology, at least in theory. But he was more committed to doing deals. Declaring his philosophical druthers did not deter him from taking what he could get, much in the fashion of the centrist Democratic impulses personified by Chicago political icons such as former longtime mayor Richard M. Daley and the late congressional power, former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, a legendary chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Many Obama allies thought he'd sold them out on the death penalty. In retrospect, he had not. Perhaps more than any participant, he cold-bloodedly believed that his interrogation law would alter police behavior, while also protecting them from unfair charges of coercion in extracting confessions. Many participants did not see that long-term result as he did. All these years later, he's been proven correct. You don't hear grousing about it these days. It's worked.

Of course, he wasn't getting the microscopic attention he is as president. His issues didn't even attract much interest in Illinois and he was desperately grateful for whatever notice he received -- or even a returned phone call from a reporter.

There weren't reporters and columnists chiding him for any air of condescension, as the New York Times' David Brooks and others have done during his dueling with House Speaker John Boehner. Sitting in the Other America, out in the Heartland, I can't point to one conversation of late where such an image of scold has been mentioned.

Perhaps the Beltway media sharpies are smarter than the rest of us. For now, I'll rely on unscientific, anecdotal evidence to conclude that he'll come off as the adult in the room once this mess is resolved.

And, as you watch him, be reminded of his informative pre-law school days as a community organizer in Chicago. Recall how they inspired both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin to openly mock the term "community organizer" at the 2008 Republican National Convention, with the former New York mayor unable to contain derisive giggling as he openly wondered what the term stood for.

Well, it stands for giving power to the powerless. But, for Obama, it also meant a strategic set of notions about finding mutual agreement among people with the most divergent of motivations, according to Obama mentors whom I know from back then and David Maraniss, the journalist-author now working on an Obama biography.

Then, as now, he was also about seeking resolutions, not just bashing the rich. It was intellectual empiricism and street-wise practicality all at play. It was about doing a deal and moving on.

Image credit: Obama for America

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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