Barack Obama: Pragmatist or Liberal? How About Both?

Taking a page from Reagan

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I'm getting a bit tired of hearing about how Barack Obama's cabinet choices thus far have reflected a pragmatic approach to governing, rather than a liberal one. That's rather like saying that my lunch today will taste like chicken, rather than like purple.

Liberalism, unlike pragmatism, is an ideology; pragmatism reflects the approach one takes to instituting that ideology. Is that to suggest that there aren't pie-in-the-sky liberals who would press doctrine regardless of real-world circumstances (like political realities)? Hell, no. There are plenty of ideologues wandering around Washington from all sides of the political spectrum. (Recall ivory tower conservatives who blithely promised that bouquets would be thrown at our troops in Iraq, rather than IEDs.)

Hearing about the false liberal-pragmatist dichotomy reminded me of something a former presidential speechwriter once told me, recalling the fights he and his colleagues would have with the so-called pragmatists in his president's administration.

You know they called them pragmatists—the pragmatists versus the ideologues—as if we didn't think that what we were doing could work, we were just someone who was interested in some ideology that was not attached to reality.

The speechwriter was Dana Rohrabacher, who wrote for Ronald Reagan before running for (and winning) a U.S. House seat from California. Reagan had a very strong, clear ideology (clearer, Matt Dallek noted last week, than does Obama), but he also had a pragmatic political streak that helped him become an enormously effective president. "Reagan . . . shared the political realism of his aides," biographer Lou Cannon wrote. "He placed a high premium on success throughout his various careers, and he often complained that some of his erstwhile conservative supporters wanted to go 'off the cliff with all flags flying.'"

JFK famously described himself as an idealist without illusions.

"We are not going to be hampered by ideology," Obama told a meeting of governors today. "We want to figure out what works." He appears to share an emphasis on long-term success over immediate ideological gratification. Good. If he charts a liberal course and navigates it in a pragmatic manner, we'll all be the better for it.