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Obama puts pragmatism over promises

His willingness to consider new perspectives and change his position, even when it angers his supporters, is a stark contrast to predecessor George W. Bush's inflexibility.

May 17, 2009|Christi Parsons and Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — For weeks, Army Gen. Ray Odierno had passionately pressed his point with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates: President Obama's plan to release photographs depicting the alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners would be a costly mistake.

Last week, when Odierno was in Washington for a meeting with the president, the top U.S. commander in Iraq was pleased and grateful when Obama revealed that he had changed his mind and would oppose release of the photos.

"Thanks," Odierno said. "That must have been a hard decision."

"No," Obama replied, "it wasn't at all."

It was a telling moment -- a glimpse into one of the most striking features of the new president's approach to decision-making.

Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, who styled himself as "the Decider" and took pride in sticking with decisions come what might, Obama is emerging as a leader so committed to pragmatism that he will move to a new position with barely a shrug.

Whether it's a long-standing campaign promise or a recent Oval Office decision, Obama has shown a willingness to reverse himself and even anger his most liberal supporters if he can advance a higher-priority goal or avoid what he sees as a distracting controversy.

"This is the story of an ambitious new administration running up against reality at home and abroad," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former advisor to President Clinton. "The realities on the defense and foreign policy fronts are both more intractable and quicker to show themselves for what they are."

Whether Obama's changes are viewed as "flip-flopping" may depend on what Galston calls "the basic optic."

"If he's basically faithful to the agenda he ran on, the reversals -- such as they are -- are going to be seen as tolerable exceptions rather than as leading indicators," he said. "If you are a single-issue person, what the president says in regard to your issue may be a bitter disappointment."

In quick succession last week, for example, Obama announced two major shifts on sensitive national security issues and drew cries of concern from the American Civil Liberties Union and open-government organizations.

He said he would oppose making the detainee pictures public -- a switch that could put him at odds with a federal judge who ordered them released. And he declared that the administration would stick with a modified version of the Bush administration's military tribunals for trying terrorism suspects; during the campaign he had promised to rely on federal courts and the traditional military justice system.

Similarly, on domestic policy, Obama aides last week suggested that much of the fees for exceeding carbon emissions caps might be given to factory owners and power companies if that's what it takes to gain their support for the proposal. During the campaign, Obama called for the fees to be used for alternative energy technology and middle-class tax cuts.

The recent shifts appear to be part of a pattern of starting in a liberal position and then rerouting toward the center.

For example, Obama staked out an unequivocal position against torture during the campaign, and after taking office made it his first order of business to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and ban the use of interrogation techniques beyond those allowed by the U.S. Army Field Manual. Those techniques prohibit physical contact or force.

But as president, he has not ruled out the practice of turning terrorism suspects over to other countries that employ torture, a practice known as "extraordinary rendition." He also ordered a task force to study the field manual and recommend "additional or different guidance."

"I think he's pragmatic," said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, which is gearing up for a possible fight over Obama's Supreme Court nominee. "He's trying to compromise. But is he also an idealist? If 'idealist' means soaring rhetoric, that's easy. But if it means you'll fight for what you believe in, even when it's not pragmatic, then no."

The change from the Bush years is striking. Bush would "stick with his way no matter where it led," said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "Obama has the opposite personality and makeup." Obama does not believe "that every progressive orthodoxy is sacrosanct," Bennett said.

Though for the most part liberals have held their fire, the last week's events raise the question of how long they will tolerate the pattern.

As the House debated war funding last week, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) compared his position to when, after being elected to the House as an antiwar candidate in 1969, he initially gave President Nixon's war policy the benefit of the doubt.

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