Big-Spending Obama's Not Liberal, Just "Pragmatic"

Reporter Richard Stevenson claims the big-spending, tax-raising president is actually committed "to the most basic conservative tenets: the power of markets as an engine of innovation and prosperity, and the necessity of economic growth for improving incomes and living standards."

Two stories on Sunday tried to paint the liberal, big-spending, government program expanding Obama as a "pragmatist."

First, the off-lead story by David Herszenhorn and Jackie Calmes, "Washington Memo," "Major Plans, Softer Stands - Obama Is Accepting Washington Reality." Pondering whether Obama is pushing his liberal agenda hard enough, the reporters took care to note the president is being pragmatic:

President Obamais well known for bold proposals that have raised expectations, but his administration has shown a tendency for compromise and caution, and even a willingness to capitulate on some early initiatives.

It was inevitable that Mr. Obama's lofty pledge to change the ways of Washington would crash into the realities of governing, including lawmakers anxious to protect their constituents and an army of special-interest lobbyists.

Mr. Obama has not conceded on any major priority. His advisers argue that the concessions to date - on budget items, for instance - are intended to help win the bigger policy fights ahead. But his early willingness to deal or fold has left commentators, and some loyal Democrats, wondering: where's the fight?


In some of his earliest skirmishes, Mr. Obama eventually chose pragmatism over fisticuffs.

Congressional Democrats effectively killed his proposal to slash farm subsidies by nearly $1 billion a year, and forced him to retreat partially on a plan to require private insurers to pick up more of veterans' health costs. They also got him to shelve the idea of a commission to buttressSocial Security's finances.

And Thursday, Mr. Obama suggested that he would not fight in Congress to renew an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. It was the latest example of the pragmatic approach he adopted after winning the presidency by promising to challenge entrenched interests and put the public good ahead of political expedience.

Mr. Obama's top aides dismiss suggestions that he has shied from confrontation, saying they ignore his achievements, the need to move quickly to address economic woes and the fights he has picked against some big interest groups in Washington, including components of the Democratic base, like organized labor.

Pragmatism, they add, is an Obama hallmark, and among the changes he promised - and has delivered - is a break from his predecessor's often uncompromising style.

The Times then listed some of the president's liberal spending victories, without characterizing them as such:

Mr. Obama's allies point to his winning the second $350 billion in financial bailout money from a reluctant Congress; a pay-equity law for women; expanded government health insurance for children, including - at his insistence - legal immigrant children; and the $787 billion economic recovery bill that reached his desk, as demanded, by mid-February.

Sunday's Week in Review lead story, "Capitalism After The Fall," by Richard Stevenson, served the same centering function, portraying the ideological Obama as merely a practical president, evenas he waits to redefine capitalism in his own terms:

The recession will end. No one is marking the calendar, least of all President Obama, but the president is hinting at an audacious ambition as he waits for that inevitable if distant day: a redefining of American capitalism.

In a series of comments in recent weeks, Mr. Obama has begun to sketch a vision of where he would like to drive the economy once this crisis is past. His goals include diminishing the consumerism that has long been the main source of growth in the United States, and encouraging more savings and investment. He would redistribute wealth toward the middle class and make the rest of the world less dependent on the American market for its prosperity. And he would seek a consensus recognizing that an activist government is an acceptable and necessary partner for a stable, market-based economy.

In other words, he's a big-time liberal. Yet the Times strove to avoid the label:

But now, as the United States and other nations look for lessons in the wreckage from the excesses of that period, political leaders are confronting uncertainty about what economic structures and values should define capitalism's next chapter. Even before the current crisis, there were calls to rethink basic assumptions about the economy. Growth during the Bush presidency was slower than in any decade since before World War II, and incomes for most families have been growing slowly for much of the last three decades.

Mr. Obama is stepping into the debate characteristically intent on avoiding polarizing labels, and his advisers describe his philosophy in terms of pragmatism rather than ideology.

They said that the president's approach is based on a belief that recent economic cycles were driven too much by financial engineering; reserved most of the fruits of good times for the wealthy; relied excessively on foreign capital to finance domestic debt; and ultimately gave way to painful busts. Mr. Obama, they said, simply wants a more stable economic model.


Conservative activists whipped up emotional anti-tax, anti-Obama "tea parties" around the country to mark tax-filing day last week, saying the White House was headed down a path of fiscal profligacy that would ultimately require broad tax increases. And the prospect of a Democratic administration pushing the United States to the left is seen by many conservatives as a political rallying cry.

Against all evidence, Stevenson still insisted Obama was some kind of centrist, even insisting he was being faithful to "basic conservative tenets":

The economic philosophy that Mr. Obama developed during the presidential campaign drew from across the ideological spectrum even as it remained rooted on the center-left. As that philosophy has been tested in practice through his early months in office, the president has if anything become more comfortable with an occasionally intrusive government as a counterweight to market forces that are now so powerful and fast-moving that they cannot be counted on to be self-correcting when things go wrong. He regularly rebuts conservative criticism on that score by pointing out that it was George W. Bush, just before he left the White House, who put the government in the business of deciding which financial institutions would fail and which would be allowed to survive.

Yet if Mr. Obama's position brings the United States full circle from Ronald Reagan's nostrum that government is the problem, it also stresses continuity and a commitment to the most basic conservative tenets: the power of markets as an engine of innovation and prosperity, and the necessity of economic growth for improving incomes and living standards.