In his first nationally televised press conference as the nation’s president, Barack Obama spoke in full sentences that were extended to well-structured paragraphs that combined to make for mini-essays on the subjects he was asked to address. Some of his answers lasted for as long as seven minutes; none were off the point of the question. And he did not appear in the least to be unprepared about anything he was asked.
Thus, without even considering the substance of his answers, the American people, if they were paying attention, learned much about the man they elected as their new president. They learned that he is articulate and comfortable in this part of his job, but, more importantly, they learned how he intends to govern.
I identified four aspects of his approach to his job from the press conference. In ascending order of importance, here’s what we learned.
1. This president does his homework, and he is a straight A student. In his detailed answers to the questions he was asked, Obama displayed the kind of substantive expertise the country hasn’t seen in a president since Bill Clinton. That the Clinton presidency ended only eight years ago might be an indication of how little interest in or grasp of substance his successor (Mr. Obama’s predecessor) had on most topics that came across his desk.
Irrespective of whether his analyses of the issues are accurate or reflect a political philosophy the country is best served by, this new president is not going to fail by reason of limited information. Obama takes seriously the part of his job that requires the hard things, like reading, attending briefings, studying the issues. He may make mistakes, but they won’t be for want of knowledge.
2. He really does want to change the way Washington works. In this regard, he has taken a page from his opponent’s playbook. Just as John McCain preached the need for bipartisanship in his campaign (and has occasionally sought to practice it in his 30 years in elective office), so does the new president intend to seek bipartisanship in his dealings with Congress and the country.
He may not have achieved much support from his political opponents on his first major legislative effort (the pending stimulus bill), but he has “reached across the aisle” in trying to gain that support, and he appears to have in mind to continue that kind of approach. Thus, in his press conference, he pointed out that in addition to his visits to the Republican Congressional caucuses and his invitations to Republicans to attend social functions at the White House, he also invited Republican suggestions for the stimulus bill and adopted more than a few of them, the continuing negative response from the GOP notwithstanding.
Collegiality is the word we use in legal circles. Simply translated, it means according respect to the person even if you disagree with his or her specific thoughts on a given subject. And, just as significantly, it reflects an openness to opposing views, not just for show, but for the benefit that those opposing views may actually offer an improved solution to the problem at hand. It’s the opposite of arrogance, which will mark another distinct difference in approach from the country’s experience of the last eight years.
3. The new president is a pragmatist in the most positive sense of the word. Put another way, he’s a “do what works” kind of guy. This approach is evident in his aggressive efforts to tackle the economic crisis he has inherited as he begins his term. He began looking for solutions during the campaign, when the meltdown had only just begun, by assembling a team of the best and brightest economists he could find. Included in the group were Republicans and Democrats and non-partisans, and many of that same group are advising him now.
This is not a man who will lock himself onto a position or policy and stick to it irrespective of the results that are being produced by it. He believes the current stimulus plan will work, but by providing his own definition of benchmarks for its success (a turnaround in the employment statistics, a return of normal bank lending practices, and a rebound in the housing market), he is identifying how he (and the nation) can judge the success of the plan he is seeking to put in place. If it doesn’t work, this president will not be likely to “stay the course.” Rather, he will make whatever adjustments he can to achieve his goals for the country.
4. Notwithstanding his essential pragmatism or his desire for bipartisanship, President Obama is possessed of a set of core beliefs that define his political and governing philosophy. He is, in the most classic sense, a liberal, meaning he recognizes the role that government must play in securing the guarantees of the Constitution and in providing the basis by which the citizens of his country can live in safety and prosperity.
Liberalism has been a dirty word in American politics ever since Jimmy Carter bungled in paying lip service to it and Ronald Reagan then declared it un-American. In truth, the greatest periods in America’s history have been marked by liberal leadership.
Jefferson’s decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory was a rejection of conservatism and an acceptance of liberalism. Lincoln’s abolition of slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation was the act of a liberal. Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting was a liberal’s attempt to restrict the results of unfettered capitalism. FDR’s New Deal, still despised by radical conservatives, saved the nation during the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society made health care available to millions of Americans and brought poverty into focus as a legitimate target of governmental action.
Barack Obama is cut of the same cloth. And coupled with his intellectual grasp of the issues that come before him, his commitment to find bipartisan solutions to the problems that confront the nation, and his pragmatic approach to governing, he is likely to restore liberalism to its rightful place as a valued political philosophy in twenty-first century America.