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The pragmatic president

Obama's compromises may have angered liberals, but he's honoring a long political tradition.

January 02, 2011

As President Obama's second year in office comes to an end, a bitter battle is underway among Democrats over whether he has broken his promises and sold out his principles, or merely made the kind of rational compromises that prudent leaders are required to make. Hurt, betrayed and surprised, some of his original supporters are now deriding him as spineless and weak, while others insist that his tactics allowed him to achieve all he possibly could have in today's partisan political environment.

Passions are running high. Should he have held out indefinitely for the public option during the struggle for healthcare reform, or was he right to compromise in hopes of passing a bipartisan bill? Given his campaign promise to close the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison within one year, how could he have allowed Congress to thwart him so easily? In the recent lame-duck session, should he have let the Bush-era tax cuts expire entirely rather than allow them to be extended for people who earn more than $250,000 a year?

At its core, this is one of the oldest battles in the history of politics. Tensions between moderates and radicals, between pragmatists and purists, between gradualists and those who are unwilling to wait for change are an integral part of the democratic process going back to classical Athens and Rome. Whether a politician should stand firm for what he or she believes in or cut deals in order to lock in partial gains is both a moral question and a tactical one on which it is unlikely that everyone will agree.

It was certainly a familiar dilemma to Abraham Lincoln, who as an up-and-coming politician took a moderate stance against slavery, stopping well short of the position that the radical Republicans and abolitionists wanted him to hold — and that he himself appeared to believe in. Lincoln knew slavery was wrong — "I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel," he wrote — but he had other, competing objectives that he was unwilling to sacrifice: He was determined to win elections, to work within the Constitution and, most important, not to push the Southern states too far and threaten the stability of the Union.

As a result, he adopted a series of compromise positions. In the 1850s, he opposed slavery's westward expansion into new territories, according to Columbia professor Eric Foner, but declined to call for its abolition in the existing slave states. During the Civil War, he came out for a gradual end to slavery, with compensation for slave owners, which would have taken years to accomplish. Abolitionists had little patience for such positions. "It is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned," said Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner.

In retrospect, of course, Lincoln's willingness to triangulate on one of the most important moral questions of all time doesn't reflect terribly well on him. Still, it's worth remembering, as Foner notes, the important symbiosis between the radicals and the moderates. Agitation by abolitionists and radicals "established the context in which politicians like Lincoln operated" and, combined with Lincoln's capacity for growth and change, allowed his thinking to slowly evolve so that, by the end, he adopted many of the radical positions he had initially rejected — and brought much of the country with him.

Here's another, more up-to-date analogy to Obama's predicament: In Britain, the Liberal Democratic party, a left-of-center faction that made common cause last year with the conservative party in order to form a coalition government, is watching its support deteriorate dramatically.

According to an article by Henry Chu in last Sunday's Times, the Liberal Democrats face a problem similar to Obama's. Joining the coalition has required them to jettison some of the purist stances they took as an opposition party in favor of practical actions and political compromises. As a result, they have substantially more say in running the country, but they have capitulated on certain long-standing positions and angered their base along the way. Among other things, they've signed on to a sweeping plan to cut spending and welfare benefits and have agreed to raise university fees. Is it worth it? "Politics is the art of the possible," explained Ian Campion-Smith of the North Bristol Liberal Democrats. "On the whole, people would rather we were having some influence on government rather than having no influence on government."

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