Obama’s a pragmatist? Finally, some good news.

(Inspiration thanks to the Daily Dish)

David Kurtz describes the compromise President Obama reached with Senate Republicans to extend all the Bush-era tax-cuts for two years in exchange for a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and a number of other economic stimulants as a “turning point … in how we understand and perceive him.” He goes on to say that no longer will Obama be seen as a “progressive savior,” but rather as a plain ‘ole pragmatist. To that I say: “Thank goodness!” It’s why I voted for the guy. And I hope Kurtz is right.

Many reactions on the left fall somewhere between outrage at Obama’s “capitulation” and a dispirited cynicism because they don’t like the deal, but “it could be worse.” Yes, it is an imperfect deal (I, for one, despise the estate tax reduction), but it accomplishes what Obama felt was the most urgent issue before Congress: extending unemployment benefits. And that is what a pragmatist does. A pragmatist understands the broader decision-making context and seeks to achieve what is possible, not what is ideal. Sure, he could’ve used the bully pulpit over the next two years to castigate the GOP for its unforgivable legislative intransigence, and that might’ve had a discernible impact on his chances for re-election in 2012. But that wouldn’t have passed a measure which will have the greatest impact on getting money back into our economy.

And those who argue that widespread public agreement with Obama and the Democrats over the tax-cuts for the wealthy justifies a showdown with the GOP have a fundamental misunderstanding of how policy is made in this country. If the fate of the Bush tax-cuts were decided by popular referendum, the public opinion argument would mean something. But since it is elected officials who actually vote for (or against) a policy, and since Senate Republicans had vowed to kill any legislation which did not extend all the Bush tax-cuts (and would succeed because of the Senate’s broken filibuster procedure), such public support was essentially meaningless. To put it another way, Obama and the Democrats can scream at the top of their lungs, “THE PEOPLE SUPPORT THIS!!!” and Jim DeMint can – and will – simply say, “But I don’t care.” And that is where any chance of actually governing ends.

All of which makes it clear that we are lucky Obama is a pragmatist rather than some kind of progressive ideologue. He surveyed the political landscape, saw that it was unfavorable, and made the best decision he could based on the resources available to achieve what he thought was most important. It wasn’t a shrewd political calculation about getting re-elected in 2012, nor was it a sign of weakness in the face of staunch Republican opposition. It was a realistic appraisal of what was needed to get what he truly believed was most necessary for the country as a whole. Pragmatism isn’t glorious, but it is effective, and that’s what we need most urgently in a leader.

Having said all of that, I still think there’s all-too-often an erroneous impulse to lay all the blame or the glory at Obama’s feet. He’s one man. Let’s think big picture here, unless the House Dems scribble all over it next week and leave us with no meaningful economic bill at the end of the lame-duck session.

    • trippdup
    • December 11th, 2010

    I’ve mentally lumped this in with every other opinion piece that pre-supposes a 42 seat Republican majority in the Senate.

    • Someone doesn’t understand how filibusters actually work. The way it’s been employed during the 111th Congress renders the question of majority *almost* meaningless.

    • elasinino
    • December 11th, 2010

    Lolz @ Jim DeMint. I would feel better about this if I felt that the GOP would be cooperative in the future. I just don’t see that happening. But the deal is impressive, if not a little bit sigh-inducing. Nice piece, Tim.

    • It is much easier to oppose everything than to do one something. The GOP’s tactics may have worked while they were squarely in the minority and could paint Obama as the “Other.” (I got this idea from Andrew Klein http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/12/obama-president-mcconnell-sucker.html ) But I have a sneaking suspicion that such intransigence will not play well over the next two years, especially now that the Bush tax-cut debate has been settled. Assuming it passes Congress, of course.

      And yeah, Jim DeMint is a fucker.

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