National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein has a nice piece regarding a press interview that President Obama gave on Air Force One on the way to Chicago yesterday. In particular Brownstein hones in on how Obama’s outlook could tell us about his leadership style:
“My consistent bottom line is: How do we make sure that the American people can work, have a decent income, look after their kids and we can grow the economy.”-President Barack Obama
Any compromises or course corrections, he argued, must serve those overriding priorities.
That’s an elastic and responsive vision of the presidency which doesn’t quite match the preferences of either the ideological warriors of left and right, or those who define consensus as simply the midpoint between each party’s traditional answers. It contrasts markedly with the style of George W. Bush, who too often viewed rigidity as proof of resolve. Bill Clinton came closer to Obama’s approach, but even he seemed more intent on proving certain fixed assumptions — that opportunity could be balanced with responsibility, for instance, or government activism squared with fiscal discipline. Ronald Reagan likewise shared an instinct toward compromise, but he operated within a more constricting ideological framework than Obama.
Obama’s determination to elevate ends over means could bring him closer in temperament to presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt (who pledged “bold, persistent experimentation”) and Abraham Lincoln, who often insisted, “My policy is to have no policy.” That doesn’t mean either man lacked identifiable goals, much less bedrock principles. It did mean they were willing to constantly recalibrate their course in service of those goals and principles — as Lincoln once put it, like river boat pilots who “steer from point to point as they call it — setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see.”