» This Story:Read +|Talk +| Comments

Outlook: Obama a 'Pragmatic President'

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Alec MacGillis, was online Monday, May 11, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article: 'SoundsGreat, But What Does He Really Mean?', about how President Obama is a "pragmatic president."

This Story
View All Items in This Story
View Only Top Items in This Story

____________________

Alec MacGillis: Hello everyone, thanks for joining us here today. I'm here to talk about a piece I wrote for the Outlook section yesterday, asking just what Obama and his advisers (and their admirers in the media) mean when they constantly refer to him as "pragmatic." But I'd be glad to take questions on other political matters as well. Fire away.

_______________________

Bay Area, Calif.: The term "pragmatic" seems highly vague, as to be virtually meaningless. Obviously Obama has certain values and an ideological perspective on most issues. He believes in government having an activist role in the economy and society. He supports high levels of government spending and is not, rhetoric aside, a supporter of fiscal restraint.

His domestic agenda is centrist, slightly liberal in some respects, not "pragmatic," suggesting he is devoid of ideology. Do you agree?

Alec MacGillis: This is the gist of I was trying to answer the piece. Obama's been called a pragmatist for years, and with good reason, because he does approach things in a practical, sensible kind of way, with a willingness to try and work with the opposition and settle for less than a full loaf. But it's gotten to the point where the word has become all but meaningless, so often is it being invoked to describe him. Now his people are saying that his Supreme Court will be 'pragmatic.' Well, really, what does the word mean in that context? I Supreme Court pick by definition has an ideological component -- judges have world views and views of the law that cannot be defined simply by "what works."

_______________________

Florida chick: Finally, an analysis of the price we 'might' pay for addiction to all this eloquence. For the first time in my adult life, I am really worried about my party. This is the cute guy in every girl's freshman dorm, who smoothly found some flattery or glib phrase to break down doors, one by one. The conquests took on a life of their own. But facemen are shallow, and often end up doing more harm than good. Were we just conned by the biggest smiling talker ever? I worry....

Alec MacGillis: You're right, the conquests seem to hold great symbolic value for him -- they are at the heart of what he believes sets him apart as a politician. I did a piece during the 2008 campaign looking at how Obama developed support in the mostly white and rural downstate part of Illinois, and how much symbolic weight he placed on his ability to do so. The question of course becomes whether he is able to say no to one side or the other when the facts or his underlying political beliefs require it -- in Southern Illinois, for instance, he was more than happy to promote coal, until environmentalists finally called him on his promotion of a particularly polluting form of coal technology called coal to liquid. Today, the question is how much he will be willing to dig in on some of the battles that are looming with moderate and conservative members of his own party -- whether to lower the deductions for wealthy taxpayers' charitable gifts, or to lower subsidies for wealthy farmers, or raise taxes on the oil and gas industry. That's when you'll find out more about whether he's a pretty talker or more than that.

_______________________

washingtonpost.com: Rural Illinois May Offer Clues to Obama's Electability (Post, June 15, 2008)

_______________________

Athens, Ga.: The problem with the true believers on both sides is they cannot recognize the other side always has a valid point. The country would not be better off if the NRA or CAP didn't exist. These organizations represent real needs of a portion of our citizens, and it should not be a thought crime to acknowledge this fact in political discussions. In our system, Congress works out all the differences, and one side finally wins, but that doesn't mean it is always a corrupt process. Obama seems to me to understand this. Being pragmatic does not always mean splitting the differences, it could also mean recognizing the advocates aren't worried about needs of their political enemies or the folks in the middle. It's Obama's job to think about all of us, and I think he seems to recognize this. Does this seem to you to be wishful thinking?

Alec MacGillis: Wow, assuming you're referring to the Center for American Progress: wouldn't they be thrilled if they knew they've now attained acronym fame on par with the NRA! Seriously, though, you've put your finger on what Obama views as his capacity for political empathy, being able to see where both sides are coming from, the way he tried to do in the big race speech in Philly where he described the world from the perspective of aggrieved whites. You're right, it is his job as president to represent the whole country -- to "preside" over everyone -- but what's gotten a bit out of hand with all this talk about "pragmatism" is that it seems to be confusing ends with means. Obama is very pragmatic in how he goes about trying to reach his goals. But the word alone can't be used to describe the goals themselves. He has a clear agenda -- particularly in certain areas, like tax and economic policy -- and simply tagging him as a "pragmatist" risks missing where he's taking the country. Or at least that's what I argued in the piece...

_______________________

washingtonpost.com: Coal Fuels A Debate Over Obama (Post, June 4, 2007)

_______________________

Pragmatic Supreme: I think it's entirely possible to view a choice as pragmatic. He may pick a liberal judge but it'll be one that isn't a "stick in the eye" to conservatives, like say Bork or Thomas were for the other side.

Alec MacGillis: You're right, he can be more or less "pragmatic" in how far he aims with this pick. But I still would suggest that for him to say, as he assured Orrin Hatch, that he would pick a "pragmatist, not a radical" does not really tell us much, and is a misuse of the term. If Thomas and Bork are not pragmatists, is Scalia one? Are Roberts and Alito "pragmatic?" No, they're conservatives, each of them more or less conservative depending on what part of the law or politics you're talking about. Just as other judges on the court are more or less liberal depending on the area of the law. Pragmatism implies a trial-by-error approach, an absence of any established world view, a disregard for intellectual abstractions -- describing a judge as "pragmatic" tells us little about how he or she approaches the law.

_______________________

Prescott, Ariz.: How come being "pragmatic" means walking back or ignoring the campaign issues that were most important to many of us? Having a public option in healthcare is preferred by 60-70% of the population, yet it is pretty obvious that it is the first thing on the chopping block. The whole alternative energy/transportation thing was a real popular campaign theme, yet in the stimulus most money is going to widen freeways and trains got painted as some Disneyland to Vegas thing.

Alec MacGillis: You're right, in some cases, Obama's pragmatism has being used to describe areas where he has moderated his approach, or ducked issues altogether. (In other areas, though, I argue in the piece, the word has been used to give a politically appealing cast to actions and views that remain strongly progressive, as when it comes to tax policy.)The examples of tacking to the middle that I used in the piece were his decisions to keep some of the Bush policies on handling detainees (a decision made largely for expedient reasons, amid a dearth of easy choices) and his decision to take the more moderate course on expanding stem cell research, despite having supported the more aggressive position during the campaign. Other examples include the areas where he has yet to even weigh in as president, such as deferring action on don't ask/don't tell and doing next to nothing on gun control. In these areas, the critics would say, pragmatism looks a lot like simple timidity.

_______________________

Philadelphia, Pa.: "He has a clear agenda -- particularly in certain areas, like tax and economic policy -- and simply tagging him as a "pragmatist" risks missing where he's taking the country. Or at least that's what I argued in the piece..."

I think you're actually the one who is confused here. Pragmatism can be applied to determine the agenda -- the ends -- in addition to the means. Being pragmatic means looking at what are clearly identifiable problems in our country -- growing inequality, lack of access to the health system, inadequate education -- and looking to apply solutions to address those problems. If our health system in its current form extended to all citizens and where cost effective, it would not be on his agenda and he would not be looking to commit huge outlays to fix it. Same goes with education. And if more "boats were rising" (rather than the top .05 percent), he would happily reduce all taxes and make everyone like him. The direction he's taking the country is predicated by where the country is. If he could sit back and let things run on there own, I'm sure he'd be happy clearing brush at Camp David or refining his b'ball game.

Alec MacGillis: This is a very well-articulated counter. But I would still argue that there is unavoidably some level of ideology or world view or whatever one wants to call it in his identification of the problems to be addressed, and the way he's chosen to address them. Yes, growing inequality is a fact, but there are plenty in politics who just do not think it is that big of a problem. Obama clearly thinks it is a huge problem. And if you listen to him talking about it and the solutions he proposes, it becomes clear that this is not just a technocrat trying to find the best tool to make the repair -- this is someone who brings a strong morality of his own to bear, who believes that it is simply wrong that the wealthy in the country get a bigger break on their tax deductions, regardless of whether or not that directly contributes to the country's economic problems. Same thing for health care -- there are plenty of people in this country who simply do not believe that health care coverage should be guaranteed. But Obama declared in one of the debates that it is a "right." That's not just pragmatism, that is a world view, strongly held.

_______________________

Alec MacGillis: Well, that was a good comprehensive question to end on. Thanks to everyone for the smart queries and do join us again next time. In the meantime, go forth and pragmatize!

_______________________

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


» This Story:Read +|Talk +| Comments
© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Discussion Archive

Viewpoint is a paid discussion. The Washington Post editorial staff was not involved in the moderation.

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity