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Obama: I Won't Play Washington Games

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.

By Dan Froomkin  |  February 17, 2009; 10:08 AM ET
Categories:  Financial Crisis , Obama v. D.C.  
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Comments

What an amazing change, to have a president who speaks with intelligence and a measure of wisdom. Will Obama make mistakes? Of course he will but he will try to learn from them. Did George Bush make mistakes? Of course he did, even if he never admitted them and certainly didn't appear to learn fom them. A debt is owed to Bush, without whom Obama's opportunity to make fundamental changes would not have been possible. That said, I still wish that things weren't as bad as they've become.

Posted by: allenofwoodhaven | February 17, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Obama did NOT just land in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, having recently emigrated from the plant Mars ... he was ON DUTY as a senator for four years ... yet, Obama saw nothing ... heard nothing ... and he certainly spake nothing in all those FOUR YEARS to stop the downward spiral.

Did Obama see this economic meltdown coming?

Apparently not, if we are to go by his four-year SILENCE.

Now, Obama says it was all dumped on him on Day One, as if HE hadn't been an elected U.S. senator for FOUR YEARS -- whose job it was to spare us from this mess.

Posted by: turner1 | February 17, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Here is the thing;
Now that the SPENDING PACKAGE ('stimulus') is for the 'go' , it will do as, by logic is/was deisgned to do; TO PERPETUATE THE CORRUPTED MALPRACTICES BY THE ORIGINALS CROOKS AND THIEVES AT WALLSTREET THAT START ALL THIS, BACKED BY 'THE COVER-UP GROUP' (Barney Frank, Reid,Pelosi,Cox,Dood,....and others weeds) This will continue until 'kindom come' - sort of speak

Truth is that eventuually the economic grid will come back on track and Obama and his gang will claim 'SUCCESS' to this so called 'stimulus'. WE ALL HAVE TO REMEMBER AND UNDERSTAND THAT ECONOMY SHOULD BOUNCE BACK AS NORMAL MARKET-DEMAND AND CREDIT CASH FLOWING MOVEMENT FOR THAT IS THE ALWAYS DYNAMICS IN THE ECONOMY SPECTRUM....IT IS A REGULAR AND NORMAL CYCLE AND HISTORY GIVES LIGHT INTO THIS.

But Obama and his gang will try ( ooohhh!! THEY WILL TRY ALRIGHT !) via SPLENDOROUS OBAMA-ELOCUENCY MIND PSEUDO-HYPNOTIC WAYS (just like using an enema ...like in the past campaing before the FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS) to feed into the public that is because his leadership.

AND CHANCES ARE THAT SOME OF THE PEOPLE MIGHT JUST EAT IT.

Hey! Obama and his gang are DRYING ! the taxpayer money reserves. WE NEED BETTER, HONEST AND CONCIOUS LEADERS AT HELM! The current administration is not good.

sincerely,
DC,Merrillville, IN

Posted by: morcab | February 17, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I don't care if Obama makes mistakes so long as he is willing and able to learn from them,admit them, and try to correct them. Thank god he seems to be willing and able to do all of that. What a change from the last 8 years.
Oh one last thing turner1 please grow up and stop your whining.

Posted by: juist4 | February 17, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Hey Froomkin, why not spare your fingers the stress of typing and just cut-n-paste the pres releases from Whitehouse.gov.

Posted by: SharpshootingPugilist | February 17, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Obama is all bluster.

He speaks out of both sides of his mouth... just like Slick Willie before him.

Look at this: "[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."

Well, allowing 3 GOP Senators to come in and start arbitrarily marking up his stimulus plan willy-nilly sure seems like tit-for-tat politics to me.

Obama thinks he can just gallop in and change the inertia in Washington??? HA -- he already has a watered down stimulus bill and his DOJ has already followed lock-step with his predecessor.

Just wait and see -- his [in]actions will speak for itself.

Posted by: winoohno | February 17, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

One thing's for sure: Obama's performance thus far has silenced all but the sandwich-board set; thinking conservatives [distinct from right-wingers] are still giving him a chance [including my neocon friends, who usually delight in winding me up]. It's only been 30 days, dear friends, and he's already ahead of the curve.

Posted by: mobedda | February 17, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Dear Dan,
Nice piece and I am so thankful for Obama. Could you imagine listening to John McCain and Sarah Palin explaining how even though times are tough we have to invade Russia right now before they attack us?

It seems your comments section has been overrun by paid trolls. Some of the remarks are so below the discourse level that surely no one no matter how indoctrinated or maladjusted could believe what they are saying. Probably some desperate mercenary keyboardist getting 10 cents a word from the RNC for anything negative. Well, at least they have a job.

Thanks for your good work,
Conrad C. Elledge

Posted by: conradelledge | February 17, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Why should Obama respond to Parker? Her charges were vapors pulled out of thin air; apparently she felt a need to shore up her identity as a righty.

If Obama were to respond to such foolishness, he wouldn't have time enough left to attend to business. As on the campaign trail, he will let such remarks pass and be forgotten.

And that applies also to the peashooter assaults of turner1, morcab, and winoohno.

Posted by: j2hess | February 17, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Please can you wait until the guy accomplishes something before you start comparing him to Roosevelt and Lincoln! It absolutely denigrates their contributions to American history.

Also there have been good Presidents who were considered to be intellectuals and bad ones. In and of itself it is neutral.

Posted by: DCDave11 | February 17, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Oh, one last thing, juist4, it's Obama who needs to stop his whining about how shocked, shocked he is to find there was an economic problem on his desk on day one. Where was he the last four years? Oh, he was IN the U.S. senate. But he never seemed to notice the developing economic problem?

Posted by: turner1 | February 17, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

winoohno,

After reading your post i can see you are an expert on speaking out of both sides of you mouth. The stimulus is less money than Bush gave the banks on TARP. It is also a fraction of the money we wasted in Iraq rebuilding their country while ignoring ours. I dont know what you expect from your President but Obama is doing a far better job than Bush ever did on his best day....

Posted by: rharring | February 17, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

It's good to have a real President.

After eight years of constant failure and incompetence beyond measure.

Posted by: WillSeattle | February 17, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

His heart and soul is in Kenya. This whole thing is simply a means to some mysterious end.

"This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Bill Clinton

Posted by: bri2 | February 17, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Gee, that WAS different. No nick-names, no slogans, no sound bites. Serious discussion about policy and effective governing. Let's see if the pundits know how to handle it. I doubt it. They need to sell papers or attract viewers. It sure was refreshing. Obama actually spoke honestly in clear and coherent sentences about solving the mess the Republicans have put us in.

Posted by: thebobbob | February 17, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

For all those posters who have expressed a negative view of BHO, would they have preferred Senator McCain as President, who admitted that he knows very little about economics, but confidently pronounced that the fundamentals of our economy are sound (what fundamentals did he have in mind)?

Ms. Parker's "jump the gun" remarks beg more questions about her judgement as a columnist, than they do about BHO's fitness to be President at this point. After all,he has yet to hit the one month anniversary of his inauguration. Allowing time for the new President to take actions which may or may not offer evidence of a positive learning cure, and which may or may not offer effective solutions to the nation's critical problems, should be a requirement for concluding that this administration is actually an "amateur hour" operation.

Posted by: MillPond2 | February 17, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

morcab,

What color are crazy pills? I've never actually seen them, but I think you've taken one too many. Get out of your meth lab and breathe in some fresh air. Might change your perspective, just like an enema.

Posted by: KobayashiMaru | February 19, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful Clinton's "Optimism"
Isn't this the same Clinton who tried to kill Bin Ladin with a missile and failed (killing one of his sons)? Didn't Bin Ladin then put suicide terrorists in this country, 2-3 years before Bush was elected, who took pilot training, etc. here, studied the airlines' practices, etc., and struck very soon after President Bush was elected (9-11, remember?) Don't you think it's just possible that revenge was Bin Ladin's motive for the attack? Bush hadn't done anything to him! If that's true, CLINTON bears the responsibility for 9-11!

Posted by: lightnin001 | February 20, 2009 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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