When Idealism Meets Pragmatism

Barack Obama came to Washington with a significant mandate, having won more votes and states than any presidential contender since Clinton beat Dole. Of course, Obama’s victory was historic, which we are reminded of this week, the 200-year birthday of Abraham Lincoln. To Obama’s credit, despite the historic proportions of his win, he knew he would have no honeymoon. The worst recession in decades guaranteed that. “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood, asserted Obama in his inaugural address, adding “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.” 

The newly minted president knew that he had one huge priority that would take precedence above all others, and that was trying to stop the hemorrhaging of money and jobs.    

But in only 25 days, many of the hopes and dreams of our 44th president have met the stark reality of…well, reality. Here are a few examples:

* After talking about the most bi-partisan presidency of modern times, not a single Republican voted for his stimulus package the first time it came up for a vote in the house, and only three Republicans voted for it in the senate. Republicans seem determined to fight Obama at every turn, despite all of the rhetoric from the right side of the aisle promising their own version of bipartisanship. 

* He has had a rocky time with nominees: One of two-tax-troubled appointees had no choice but to fall on his sword (Tom Daschle). His other under-tax-paying nominee, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the man without a plan, was laughed off Wall Street this week when his presentation rang hollow. But few were laughing when his vacuous ideas sent the Dow plumetting almost 400 points. Then yesterday, with no notice, Obama’s second choice to become commerce secretary—fiscal conservative Republican Judd Gregg—quit without a fight, embarassing the administration one more time (Governor Richardson also withdrew for the same post).   

 * His stimulus plan has been stripped of billions in green jobs, health care, and other things Obama promised:In their place were put more tax cuts for the wealthy. One of the factors that led to the serious revisions was Obama’a decision to allow members of Congress to draw up the original legislation. Had the While House kept control over it from the outset, many argue that the president would have been able to keep much more of what he wanted by doing more effective horse trading. The result was a study in “amateurism,” insisted one critic.

Now that Obama’s administration has come up against forces and events greater than it anticipated, will we have a less idealistic president? I think so. The kind of challenges that Obama has already confronted—and those yet to come—have a way of clarifying the mind and shifting priorities. For example, going into the stimulus plan, Obama had hoped to get more than 80 votes in the senate, and surely more than the zero he received the first time out in the House. 

However, while I am a big believer in idealism, I am an even bigger believer in pragmatism. Especially in these incredibly difficult times. We simply cannot afford idealism at a time when our own president has designated the state of our global economy as the greatest threat to our national security.    



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