The show's cocreator and writer Beau Willimon says his characters are inspired by the masters of political gamesmanship: Lyndon Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, people who were "willing to break the rules in order to properly lead."
That instinct goes back to America's founding. George Washington's family coat of arms bears the Latin motto exitus acta probat ("the ends justify the means"). LBJ was famous for his brokering and cajoling: "He could get up every day and learn what their fears, their desires, their wishes, their wants were and he could then manipulate, dominate, persuade and cajole them," Johnson biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of his approach. And Lincoln, as we were recently reminded by Hollywood's Steven Spielberg, made all kinds of corrupt bargains to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The "ruthless pragmatist" title has also frequently been applied to President Obama. And even Obama himself described his economic policy in that way: "The truth is that what I've been constantly searching for is a ruthless pragmatism when it comes to economic policy," Obama told The New York Times in 2009. "Interesting choice of modifier," noted Jacob Weisberg at the time.
Rich Lowry of the National Review agreed with that assessment. "So far, President-elect Obama has acted with a ruthless pragmatism," he wrote back in 2008. He also called him "a shape-shifter" and "an establishment Democrat determined to do whatever works."
David Axelrod, following the 2008 election, called Obama a "pragmatist and a problem solver" and Obama himself, upon introducing his national security team, said "they share my pragmatism about the use of power."
He bet on that approach again during his 2012 campaign, as Marin Cogan reported for GQ. "It's not a great message, not an inspiring message, but the Obama campaign is betting on a strategy of ruthless pragmatism — go negative, tinker around the edges of fairness, and hope that destroying their opponent convinces enough swing voters to stick with the president."
The term pragmatism, Alec MacGillis observed in 2009, has distinguished roots. "William James and John Dewey promoted it as a philosophy that elevated knowledge gained through action over theory and concepts," he wrote, "Obama has been pragmatic in this sense when it comes to, say, the financial crisis, embracing trial and error and resisting the more systemic solution of nationalizing banks."
Some say that style was observable even before he entered politics. One New York Times Magazine reporter asked some of Obama's former students how they thought he'd manage the country. ''Based on what I saw in the classroom," Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a progressive lobbyist in Illinois, told the Times' Alexandra Starr, "my guess is an Obama administration could be summarized in two words: ruthless pragmatism.''