By DeWayne Wickham
It isn’t often that Americans get a revealing insight into the decision-making style of a president before he takes office.
Usually what passes for such a preview comes from the bluster of a political campaign’s talking points, or the distant assessment of journalists who claim to possess a special understanding of the president-elect’s thinking.
Rarely do either of these sources tell us much about an incoming president that, upon close inspection, matches up well with his behavior when it comes to the exercise of power.
But it’s possible, in the wake of this most unusual of presidential election, that we’ve gained an understanding of President-elect Barack Obama that is a true predictor of the way he will wield the awesome power he’ll soon possess.
“I’m not sure people understand how pragmatic he is,” Valerie Jarrett, the co-chair of Obama’s transition team told me Sunday. “He’s a pragmatist. He really wants to get things done…He won’t just stake out a position” and cling to.
Jarrett, a longtime friend and confidant of Obama and his wife, Michelle, is no sedan-chair carrier. She’s got her own impressive resume – which includes degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan Law School, plus a long list of powerful jobs and important appointments in Illinois, where politics is a blood sport. When she talks about the president-elect, Jarrett speaks with the self-confidence of a political insider, not the pandering voice of someone jockeying for a West Wing office.
And if you pay close attention, what she told me and other members of The Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists and commentators, shortly after she made a national television appearance on “Meet the Press,” is quite revealing.
It’s a mistake, she said, to talk about Obama in terms of the left or right. He plans to change the political paradigm. What does that mean? Jarrett said Obama is a realist, not just an idealist, as many of his critics claim.
He won’t be a tool of liberals, or an easy target for conservatives. He’ll try to get done that which he thinks is “doable” and can “change the lives of the American people,” said Jarrett. Proof of this can be found in Obama’s approach to the nation’s daunting economic problems.
Before holding his first post-election press conference last week to let the nation know that he is focusing on this crisis as he prepares to assume to presidency in January, Obama pulled together a politically eclectic group of economic advisers that included the chief executive of Google, Michigan’s governor, Los Angeles’ mayor, two former treasury secretaries and an ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Jarrett said Obama went into that meeting and others he had during his presidential campaign with an open mind – and a willingness to listen to what people had to say before making a decision. She admits there occasionally were “great discussions with differences of opinion.” But there was no public backbiting and no sniping leaks to the press – which Jarrett credits to Obama’s leadership.
That kind of decision-making in his White House will help Obama retain the moral authority that many people believe America regained with his election.
What we know for certain is that presidents who lack inquisitiveness and surround themselves with sycophants become self-indulgent policy makers. That’s what happened to George W. Bush’s presidency, according to his former press secretary, Scott McClellan.
His was a surly presidency in which Bush never reflected, never reconsidered and never compromised on his positions, McClellan said in his book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.”
Jarrett gives us reason to hope that Obama’s presidency won’t get stuck in that bog.