In case you haven’t heard, Barack Obama is a pragmatist. Everybody agrees on this. Joe Biden, accepting Obama’s nod as VP at his unveiling event in Springfield, Illinois, called him a “clear-eyed pragmatist.” Describing Obama’s rise through Chicago politics, the New York Times stressed his “pragmatic politics,” while the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius refers to “The Pragmatic Obama,” and one of Obama’s most trusted confidantes, Valerie Jarrett, told USA Today, soon after his election-day victory, “I’m not sure people understand how pragmatic he is. He’s a pragmatist. He really wants to get things done.”
Obama is clear on this point as well, touting his national security team as “shar[ing] my pragmatism about the use of power” and telling Steve Kroft during his recent 60 Minutes interview that when it comes to economic policy, he doesn’t want to “get bottled up in a lot of ideology and ‘Is this conservative or liberal?’ My interest is finding something that works.”
Fair enough. We get it. He’s a pragmatist. But just what does that mean? It can’t simply be that he’s comfortable with compromise, willing to maneuver in the world as it is. That goes without saying. The man was just elected president of the United States. Head-in-the-clouds idealists do not, as a rule, come to control the American nuclear arsenal.
So we are left to interpret. In the weeks since his election, people in the press and in politics, the Beltway and the netroots have been sifting through the scraps of leaked information, and awkwardly reading these entrails for signs of the administration’s future direction, to come to understand just what this pragmatism will look like. Several factors make the project difficult. The onrush of events, with the tidal waves of economic distress, make it nearly impossible to predict policies. Who would have imagined the Bush administration overseeing a state takeover of the nation’s largest insurance conglomerate? If things keep going in the direction they’re headed, the most “pragmatic” policy options–for instance, a wholesale nationalization of the financial sector–may very well make the most fevered fantasies of radicals seem quaint.
On top of this, there’s Obama’s famous rhetorical dexterity, which he’s marshaled to tremendous effect–giving progressives as well as centrists reasons to believe he shares their values and outlook. In a postelection essay on Obama, George Packer noted these two strains of his campaign rhetoric and dubbed them the “‘progressive’ Obama” and “the ‘post-partisan’ Obama.”
In Washington “pragmatic” is a kind of code word for the latter, and it’s that Obama the Beltway establishment is happily embracing. On the front page of the Times, in a “news analysis” (a recurring feature that might as well be titled “Conventional Wisdom Digest”), David Sanger pointed to the likely appointments of Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner as suggesting that “Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists”–that word again!–“rather than ideologues.” David Brooks could hardly contain himself: “the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory,” he gushed, praising it as made of “open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence” and “admired professionals” who are not “excessively partisan” and, probably most important, “not ideological.”