by Ronald Brownstein
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."
In that spirit, Obama refused to close the door on a broad range of possibilities. One of his interviewers asked him to compare his approach to the responses to earlier banking crises in Japan -- which faced an economic "lost decade" after failing to intervene forcefully enough -- and Sweden, which temporarily nationalized its failed banks before selling them off. Obama said the administration was trying to find the "sweet spot" between those alternatives. Japan offered no model, he said, because "they sort of papered things over and never really bit the bullet." And while many on the left are urging Obama to follow Sweden's example, he thinks the scale of the U.S. problem argues against that course. "You can make a good argument for the Swedish model except for this fact: They only had a handful of banks; we've got thousands of banks," he said. "The scale, the magnitude, of what we're dealing with is much bigger."
Strikingly, the president would not rule out more direct government intervention if his initial approaches fail. "What you can say is I will not allow our financial system to collapse," he said forcefully when asked if he was excluding a Swedish-style solution. "And we are going to do whatever is required to get credit flowing again so that companies and consumers can do their business and we can get this economy back on track."
In such comments, and his remarks about his willingness to work with or without Republican support in Congress, Obama may be revealing much about his conception of leadership. He was insistent that a president's responsibility is to resist the daily (if not hourly) scorekeeping of the modern political and media system and keep his eye on the horizon. "My job is to help the country take the long view," he said. Obama portrayed himself as willing to consider a broad range of perspectives for responding to the country's daunting problems -- "We're going to... work with anybody who wants to work with us constructively," he said at one point -- and open to adjusting his own course to bring others along or simply to respond to evidence that his ideas aren't working. But repeatedly he declared that no one should interpret that to mean he lacks any clarity about his goals: "My consistent bottom line is: How do we make sure that the American people can work, have a decent income, look after their kids and we can grow the economy." Any compromises or course corrections, he argued, must serve those overriding priorities.
That's an elastic and responsive vision of the presidency which doesn't quite match the preferences of either the ideological warriors of left and right, or those who define consensus as simply the midpoint between each party's traditional answers. It contrasts markedly with the style of George W. Bush, who too often viewed rigidity as proof of resolve. Bill Clinton came closer to Obama's approach, but even he seemed more intent on proving certain fixed assumptions -- that opportunity could be balanced with responsibility, for instance, or government activism squared with fiscal discipline. Ronald Reagan likewise shared an instinct toward compromise, but he operated within a more constricting ideological framework than Obama.
Obama's determination to elevate ends over means could bring him closer in temperament to presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt (who pledged "bold, persistent experimentation") and Abraham Lincoln, who often insisted, "My policy is to have no policy." That doesn't mean either man lacked identifiable goals, much less bedrock principles. It did mean they were willing to constantly recalibrate their course in service of those goals and principles -- as Lincoln once put it, like river boat pilots who "steer from point to point as they call it -- setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see."
Obama is a long way from matching the achievements of Lincoln and Roosevelt, of course. (If Obama, and the country, is lucky, he won't have to.) But his common inclination to "steer from point to point" may serve him and the country well, especially since Obama has inherited problems of a magnitude faced by few of his predecessors other than those two titans. Obama recognizes the obvious challenge those problems present, but also sees in them opportunity. "I think that there are certain moments in history when big change is possible... certain inflection points," he said. "And I think that those changes can be for the good or they can be for the ill. And leadership at those moments can help determine which direction that wave of change goes."
Is this one of those moments, he was asked. "Yes, I firmly believe that," he said, leaning in toward his audience. "Which is part of what makes it scary sometimes, but also is what should make people determined and excited, because I think that we can really solve some problems that have been there for a long time and we just couldn't get the collective focus to tackle them. Now may be one of those moments that we can." Indeed, in today's maelstrom, we may have no other choice.