August 12th, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Fareed's Take: Defending Obama's pragmatism

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Over the last week, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to criticize the debt deal that Congress reached. But their ire was directed not at the Tea Party or even the Republicans but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a President because of his persistent tendency to compromise. This has been a running theme ever since Obama took office.

I think that liberals need to grow up.

As the New Republic's Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, there is a recurring liberal fantasy that if only the President would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry. In this view, writes Chait, "Every known impediment to the legislative process - special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion-are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech."

This does happen - if you're watching the American president - but not if you're actually watching what goes in in Washington.

The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment about Obama. "I have no idea what Barack Obama ... believes on virtually any issue," Drew Westen writes in the New York Times, confused over Obama's tendency to take "balanced" positions. Westen hints that his professional experience - he is a psychologist - suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama's disease.

Let me offer a simpler explanation: Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.

Obama passed a large stimulus package within weeks of taking office. Perhaps it should have been bigger, but despite a Democratic House and Senate, it passed by just one vote. He signed into law an unprecedented expansion of regulations in the financial-services industry, though one that did not break up the large banks. He enacted universal health care, through a complex program modeled after Mitt Romney's plan in Massachusetts. And he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.

Maybe he believes in all these things. Maybe he understands that with a budget deficit of 10% of GDP, the second highest in the industrialized world, and a debt that will rise to almost 100% of GDP in a few years, we cannot cavalierly spend another few trillion dollars hoping that will jump-start the economy.

Perhaps he believes that while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world's largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese.

He might understand that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right. Perhaps he understands that getting entitlement costs under control is in fact a crucial part of stabilizing our fiscal situation, and that you do need both tax increases and spending cuts-cuts that are smaller than they appear because they all start with the 2010 budget, which was boosted by the stimulus.

Is all this dangerous weakness, incoherence and appeasement, or is it common sense?

For more on this, you can read my column in this week's TIME magazine or at (behind a pay wall). Tune into CNN on Sunday at 10am ET/PT for GPS. In the meanwhile, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

soundoff (342 Responses)
  1. Pleased in Podunk

    Both Obamacare and the Omnibus Pork Barrel Act of 2012 (oops, stimulus for preservation of local government bureaucrats and paybacks to Democrat's supporters) were written and passed by Democrat controlled houses of Congress with no guidance or leadership from the president. Prior to the the repudiation of rampant liberalism by the voters in 2010, Obama was led along and whipsawed by the left leaning leadership in Congress. Now, out of self-preservation, he runs around trying to figure out which way things are going so that he can try to look like he is ahead of the issues.

    Obama is neither pragmatic nor a leader, and his supporters and former supporters are beginning to realize it.

    August 20, 2011 at 12:29 am | Reply
  2. Steven James Beto

    I recently became employed at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis and joined Union 1969. At the first union meeting that I attended, we were informed that legislation was being considered to extend the federal wage freeze for up to another 5 years. Union leadership encouraged the attendees to call our representatives in Washington to protest the bill and demand that they vote against it. I’m not so sure.
    In the economic downturn, I had been a victim of downsizing twice in 3 years time, and was unemployed for 42.5 months. I suffered the embarrassment of bankruptcy, separation from my family, and living in a H.U.D. facility with little prospects for improvement. Tomorrow, I begin week two of a four week orientation and I am thrilled at my pay scale and the benefit package. It seems to me that the pleasure of finally having enough is lost by wanting more.

    I am not an economist, but there have been several indicators lately that America is in trouble. I am not here assigning fault or blame. For decades of our employable lives, unions have sounded the bull-horn rhetoric: “What do we want? When do we want it?” We have learned that in doing so we get some of what we want but not all, and we attribute our success to our tactics. Although we can see that the train is going at full steam, and we can see that the bridge ahead is collapsed, we are in denial and continue with well-worn methodologies. My sister died of diabetes some years ago. In the late stages of her disease, her husband continued to heap demands upon her. After her passing, I stopped by the house and he told me, “She was standing over there one night and she fell to the ground. She just fell down. I guess she really was sick.”

    At the risk of never in my remaining employable years receiving a pay raise, I expect our politicians to review the information available to them and to make their decisions based on the data and on what they believe is best for the greater good of the United States, and not necessarily for the benefit of our union or other individual groups. This is a time of sacrifice and we would all do well to remember the words of FDR when he said, “To some generations much is given, from other generations much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”

    August 21, 2011 at 10:17 am | Reply
  3. Latrina Degracia

    Download Videos from YouTube Hey Bud, I am really doing my best to rank my videos for anything with the phrase "convert YouTube" and " record YouTube". I was maybe hopeful I wouldn't bother you by putting this up here, WAIT!, I am happy to offer a Page rank 4 link in trade from my gaming site. So shoot me an eMail if you want one.

    November 24, 2011 at 4:12 am | Reply
  4. Lou

    Fareed, I remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt. I think the point needs to be made that he was not able to bring this country out of the Great Depression during his first term in office, but he did get us through it very successfully. President Obama has done a lot which he needs time to complete and Congress needs to do their job by helping him do it.

    November 3, 2012 at 2:11 am | Reply
  5. seraphim0

    Your maturity is showing.

    August 12, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
  6. Don

    Absolutely. And I suspect it was no "accident" that Ohio and Florida held their primaries "too early". I suspect that the industrial military complex and big oil were far more comfortable with Obama at the helm than Clinton. Obama's biggest contributor was BP. A for lucky coincidence for them it turns out. We seem to have forgotten that Clinton was actually the democratic nominee, not Obama. We didn't speak out about it at the time, because everybody thought Obama was a democrat; not Bush cafe' au lait. And it also seems that controlling Ohio and Florida is the key to controlling an election.

    August 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  7. Barbara Neafcy

    I have a question about your sources saying that Clinton actually won the nomination. I've never heard that before and since I had CNN on 24/7 during the whole primary season I thought I would have heard that.

    August 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  8. Don

    Clinton carried the Florida and Ohio primaries. That gave her more delegates that Obama and enough for the Democratic nomination. But the Democratic party "invalidated" those two primaries, saying they were held "too early", and split those delegates evenly between the 2 candidates, giving Obama the nomination. All the delegates should have gone to Clinton, giving her the nomination. And to date NOBODY has explained legally how holding a primary before party officials say you can invalidates them.

    August 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  9. Jpaul

    You probably did not hear it because they were to busy saying how great Obama was.

    August 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  10. Tai

    yet another conspiracy starting. Now they are going to say his mother rigged the election from the grave

    August 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  11. Repiglican

    Hey Barbara, I don't think even if Hillary is the president, things will be better. When GWBush left, the economy was already bad, still recuperating until Aug. 2. The Repiglicans took advantage of the situation. THEY REALLY WANT TO PUT THE ADMINISTRATION DOWN. That is the bottom line. The Tea baggers are having a grand party to celebrate the suffering of the Americans. Does that make sense enough?

    August 14, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  12. bG

    Take the quotes off from "too early" and you will "not be lying". The primaries were moved up, out of the proper schedule. The state parties had to take the consequences of their actions: penalties against their delegations. They presumed that they could bluster and pressure the convention in allowing the full group of delegates. They lost and so did candidate Clinton.

    In truth, this is problem of moving primaries up out of their schedule will probably be cited as reason #72 for the decline of the USA. State parties try to push the primaries earlier and earlier in order to garner influence. Already there is talk of Republican primaries/polls occurring during Christmas time (yeah, I know about the Iowa straw poll).

    The answer would be to rotate the sequences. This time New Hampshire starts, next time Vermont, next time Nevada, etc. The first two primaries/caucuses are ALWAYS small and compact states. That would allow candidates to not spend a lot of money at the start and pick up momentum (George Bush the elder's "Big Mo") before hitting the first big expensive state (California, New York, etc).

    August 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  13. ehreval

    The Democrats are a club. In clubs, there are rules and procedures that the club may enact to police itself. The club is also responsible for determining its own actions in case a member or members violate those rules. The two primaries in question violated the party's rules, and when given a choice to invalidate the primaries or open up a can of worms that lets *every* state go whenever they darned well feel like it, the Democrat club elected to chastise some of its members by invalidating their primaries. This is not difficult math.

    August 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  14. chris

    it's not math at all. it's politics.

    August 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  15. Repiglican

    Really? a club? I think that club is much better than the Republicans who miscalculated the downgrading of the credit rating from AAA+ to AA+. Had it not been the childishness of the Republican club it could have been a different scenario.

    August 14, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  16. ken

    Here's the NAKED TRUITH! Both Bush and Obama got it wrong! You don't take tax-payer money and give it to rich people! That is Robin Hood in reverse! Reagan was wrong about "trickle-down-economics." Rich people don't make poor people rich. Working-class and poor people make rich people rich. How? Through commerce. We buy what they sell and if we can't or don't buy what they sell, they go out of business! Look around Businesses need customers. If the tax-payer money had been given back to the tax payers, since it's our money anyway, we , the tax payers would have stimulated the hell out of this economy!!! And which ever president Bush or Obama would have been reguarded as a true president of the people.

    August 14, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Reply
  17. allahdad

    You sound like a teenager, at best. Barack Obama has had three years to fix things. He hasn't. It's worse now. He's a colossal failure and you know it. But, your child-like, fragile ego just won't let you accept the truth.

    August 14, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Reply
  18. petercha

    Good point, allahdad.

    August 15, 2011 at 11:30 am | Reply
  19. mona2010

    .so why don't u run for PRESIDENT...the candidates we have don't seem like they can't do anything... go ahead run for president, still early. to sign up lets see what u got in your magic hat for this country... i can sit here and critique your ideas... there's a job opening for president for 2013...unemployment maybe on the rise, but the president's position is open for grabs...

    August 18, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Reply
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