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Obama: I Won't Play Washington Games

By Dan Froomkin
10:08 AM ET, 02/17/2009

In a fascinating 50-minute interview with five opinion columnists on a Chicago-bound Air Force One early Friday evening, President Obama declared his independence from Washington punditry.

"My bottom line was not how pretty the process was; my bottom line was am I getting help to people who need it," he said. (Here's the full transcript.)

"Going forward, each and every time we've got an initiative I'm going to go to both Democrats and Republicans and I'm going to say, here's my best argument for why we need to do this. I want to listen to your counter-arguments; if you've got better ideas, present them....

"[W]hat I won't do is to engage in Washington tit-for-tat politics and spend a lot of time worrying about those games to the detriment of getting programs in place that are going to help people."

Obama made it clear that, despite his efforts at outreach, he's realistic enough not to expect a great deal of support from Congressional Republicans any time soon. "You know, I am an eternal optimist," he said. "That doesn't mean I'm a sap -- so my goal is to assume the best, but prepare for a whole range of different possibilities in terms of how Congress reacts."

He does, however, hope that more Republicans in Congress will eventually come around -- possibly because their constituents demand it. "I do think that over time, as we keep on reaching out, and as I think the American people express their view that we need to start actually doing something about jobs, housing, health care, education, and so forth, that there will be some counterveiling pressures to work in a more constructive way."

He bluntly described the mess he inherited, including a massive deficit "that was engineered by some of the very critics" of the enormous stimulus package that Congress approved on Friday. Nevertheless, he outlined ambitious goals for the rest of the year: "Number one is to get the right structure for the successor to TARP; spending the $300-some billion that has already been authorized as wisely as possible, and injecting transparency and trust into the financial system. Having a housing program that provides relief to people who are at risk of losing their homes. Financial regulations that ensure that the crisis doesn't happen again. A innovative and aggressive push for health care reform that focuses not just on access but also on costs, and trying to just provide relief to working families. And a push for an energy policy that puts us on a path to sustainability."

That's because, he said, the crisis offers an opportunity to think long term.

"Look, I think that there are certain moments in history where big change is possible. It's not a certainty, but it's possible -- at certain inflection points. 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. I think it's very hard to -- for any single individual or politician to unleash historical momentum on its own. But I think when that historical wave is there, I think you can help guide it."

Q. "Are we in one of those moments?..."

Obama: "I think we are -- which is part of what makes it scary sometimes, but is also 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 where we can."

Obama met with E.J. Dionne Jr. and Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post, Bob Herbert of the New York Times, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, and Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal. Four of them have written mostly positively about Obama, but not Parker, whose latest column was headlined: "So Far, Amateur Hour."

All but Parker have weighed in on the interview so far.

E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote yesterday: "Barack Obama senses that he's in the middle of a hurricane whose gale-force winds could blow history his way.

"He doesn't mind acknowledging that he is learning as he goes, and he is not bitter about how little help he is getting from Republicans. But he will never again let bipartisanship become the defining test of his success.

"And, yes, he is aware that the passage of his stimulus package, though a big deal three weeks into a presidency, is only a prelude to the 'really tough' part. The next step, 'getting credit flowing again' and averting 'potential catastrophe in the banking system,' may make the stimulus fight look like a friendly warm-up game....

"Obama still thinks he'll win [Republican] support someday on some issues. Because the stimulus envisioned a large government role in rescuing the economy, he said, it may have 'exaggerated' the partisan divide because it played on 'the core differences between Democrats and Republicans.'

"But he is aware that some Republicans think they can gain 'political advantage' if they can 'enforce conformity' within their ranks and thus 'invigorate' their base.

"He declined to judge whether this strategy will work."

Dionne concludes: "Maybe that mysterious calm people talk about reflects the temperament of a man who can live with his mistakes as long as he doesn't repeat them."

Ronald Brownstein wrote for the National Journal on Saturday: "After the trials and triumphs of his tumultuous first weeks, President Obama appears increasingly focused on ends, not means.... 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....

"Obama was relaxed, responsive and, as usual, seemed preternaturally calm and unruffled....

"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 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."

Bob Herbert writes in today's New York Times: "Listening to President Obama, I was struck by how well he understands that most voters are not driven by ideology and are not searching for politically orthodox leadership. Most want leaders who speak to their needs — especially in this time of economic crisis — and a government that works.

"Republicans in Congress — all but completely united in their effort to build a wall of obstruction in the path of President Obama’s economic revitalization effort — seem to be missing this essential point...

"[B]eyond his specific policies (and whether one supports them or not), Mr. Obama is emerging as the very model of the type of person one would want in high public office. He is intelligent, mature, thoughtful, calm in the face of crises and, if the nation is lucky, maybe even wise."

Here's Clarence Page's take on the interview, including his own snapshots.

It's a fascinating interview, and well worth reading in its entirety. But I still would have liked to hear more response to some of the points the columnists raised in recent pieces. For example: Whether, as Dionne put it last Thursday, Obama has finally learned "that bland centrism is not pragmatic, that it's not helpful in resolving a big crisis and that it certainly doesn't buy you any love"?

And I, for one, would have loved to hear Obama's response to some of the charges Parker leveled in her Wednesday column, in which she concluded that his presidency so far has "been a study in amateurism." She also criticized him for being willing to admit mistakes -- something she called "weak" and likened to the behavior of an abused wife.

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