My column this week tries to parse this president's style of pragmatism. History alone will determine if it's effective in the long run, but this is my best attempt to explain it in real time nine months in:
There is a strange quality to Barack Obama’s pragmatism. It can look like dilly-dallying, weakness, indecisiveness. But although he may seem weak at times, one of the words most applicable to him is something else entirely: ruthless. Beneath the crisp suit and easy smile there is a core of strategic steel. In this respect, Obama’s domestic strategy is rather like his foreign one not so much weakness but the occasional appearance of weakness as a kind of strategy.
The pattern is now almost trademarked. He carefully lays out the structural message he is trying to convey. At home, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. Abroad, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. And then ... not much.
The agenda may be clear. He wants an engaged Iran without nuclear weapons. He wants to be the first American president to enact universal health insurance coverage. He wants a sane two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. He wants to leave Iraq without having it blow up on him. He wants to find a way to solve the AfPak Rubik’s Cube. He wants to allow gays to serve openly in the military. But on all these things, it’s mid-October and still ... nothing substantive. So obviously, he’s a total fraud and failure, right?
He sets out a goal and then he waits. He waits for the other players to show their hand. He starts a process that itself reveals that certain options are unfeasible, until he is revealed by events to have no other choice but ... well, the least worst practical way forward. He always knows that things can change, and waits for the optimal moment to seize the initiative.
On Iran, for example, he has done not much more on the surface than open up direct talks. Beneath, you see deeper shifts. His election itself and his Cairo speech laid some important groundwork for June’s Green revolution. He managed to inspire the opposition without throwing his lot in with them (playing the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, with finesse). In America, he has slowly defused the debate away from the polarising “Are you a patriot?” or “Are you with those scary Muslims?” to the more realistic: “If we want to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon, what’s the least worst way of trying or is it impossible after all?” By waiting, we learn.
We now know, for example, that Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, is more sympathetic to sanctions against Iran than Vladimir Putin. We learn more about divisions within the Tehran leadership. We may also discover that even with a transparent, good-faith engagement from Obama, the Chinese and Russians have no intention of shifting. That will leave him with a clearer, if narrower, set of policy options. The president can afford to do this because he has more power than anyone else. But he doesn’t have total control, especially as America’s global power is balanced by China, India and Russia. He’ll act when he knows what the options really are. And not until.
On health insurance reform, you see the same cunning.
(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty.)