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 (343 Responses)
  1. kyrunner

    and we give 2 hoots about fareed... why? hes about as credible as martin roland. they both drool to see the US crushed

    August 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  2. Peikovian

    Liberals fantasize that Socialism can be made to work this time. The other guys got it wrong, but we can do it because we're smarter. It's a form of Creationism, actually. The economy was designed by the forces of history just for us.

    August 17, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  3. george

    Obama is a great president at a terrible time. It is not he who is the problem. It is Congress...both parties.

    August 17, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  4. bannister

    The fact that Fareed Zakaria believes Barack Obama is a "centrist" tells you everything you need to know about Fareed Zakaria.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  5. Walking_on_ Sunshine

    The President believes in balance. I believe in balance. We need balance. There are too many extremists on the right crying out for the country to go back to the way it used to be. And too many extremists on the left just plain crying about everything and demanding the future NOW. We are in the present. We have to work with reality. The reality is pretty ugly but it's all we've got. Fact is there was low voter turnout in 2010 and that's the reason the President is having a hard time moving anything forward. This situation could have been avoided if the Progressive base had got off it's collective behind and gone out and voted. Less whining more voting. Now there's an idea.

    August 18, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  6. Michael Wofford

    PS, I do know it's quid-pro-quo. get a little ahead of the thought. But to put a name out there, how about Condolica Rice? Knows the system, intelligent, has dealt with world leaders, and has enough all around experience to do the job without needing training wheels. Look into her service and see what she has done, you will be impressed. Forget your party, look at the lady.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  7. 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 |
  8. 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 |
  9. 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 |
  10. 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 |
  11. Gerry Lovell

    Your post is very informative and I also digg the way you write!

    December 20, 2020 at 4:43 pm |
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