Op-Ed: Pragmatism and the Presidency

 

By Zarak Khan, Staff Editor

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently lamented the lack of big ideas in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. “It’s sad to compare that era of bigness to the medium-sized policy morsels that President Obama put in his State of the Union address,” he writes, “He had some big themes in the speech, but the policies were mere appetizers.” It just goes to show: you can’t please everybody.

Brooks downplays the enormous amount of political capital spent on “big ideas” over the past three years (see: Obamacare) and skims over the graveyard for transformational legislation that is the United States Congress (climate change legislation, immigration reform, changes to the tax code, etc.). He comments, “It’s odd that an administration that once wanted to do everything all at once now should be so gradualist.” Is it?

Not according to Ryan Lizza’s recent New Yorker article, in which he reviews memos from the early days of the Obama White House. Though not the tell-all scoop some people were hoping for (he does have a book deal, after all), Lizza’s insider account maps the transformation of Obama’s policy agenda from one of big ideas based on post-partisan unity to a more pragmatic one that is less reliant on political grand bargains. “He had hoped to use a model of consensus politics in which factions in the middle form an alliance against the two extremes,” writes Lizza. “But he found few players in the center of the field.”

Lizza’s critique helps explain Obama’s policy proposals in this year’s SOTU and his reticence to do “big ideas.” If Congress remains paralyzed, the president has to use the tools at his disposal to chip away at larger issues. The most prominent of those tools are executive orders and the bully pulpit. At several points during the speech, he scolded Congress for its immobility, going so far as to say, “With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow.” It remains to be seen if Obama will be punished or rewarded in November for proposing “appetizer” policies in the face of a Congress that has no stomach for the entrées that American voters (and David Brooks) want.

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