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Pragmatist in chief

President-elect Barack Obama came to the Washington Post editorial board Thursday with two messages sketchy on details yet reassuring in approach: a commitment to fiscal discipline, and a determination not to be bound by liberal, or indeed any, orthodoxy.

On the first, Obama announced his plans for a "fiscal responsibility summit" next month, even before his first budget is unveiled, "to send a signal that we are serious" about getting the long-term budget under control. These sorts of events can be window dressing, cosmetic exercises to talk about hard choices rather than make them. Yet Obama deserves the benefit of the doubt when he says that, once an economic recovery is under way, "we've got to bend the curve" of rising spending and get entitlement costs under control.

"There are going to be some very difficult choices, and issues of sacrifice and duty and responsibility are going to come in because what we have done is kick this can down the road," he said. "We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further." Obama declined to tip his hand about what sacrifices he envisioned, but he said a commission to make recommendations on entitlement spending that would then go to Congress for an up-or-down vote is "something worth talking about."

In any event, he said, "Whether there was a commission or not, you have to have a president who is willing to spend some political capital on this, and I intend to spend some." We look forward to that.

On the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unions to organize by obtaining a majority of signatures from employees in a workplace rather than having to win secret-ballot elections, Obama signaled willingness to consider other mechanisms to address the concern that employers unfairly use the current process to intimidate workers not to join unions. And he seemed in no hurry to have Congress bring it up. "If we're losing half a million jobs a month, then there are no jobs to unionize, so my focus first is on those key economic priority items," Obama said, declining to state whether he wanted to see the issue debated during his first year in office.

Asked about whether the legal system is adequate for detaining and trying alleged terrorists, Obama said that he is undecided about whether some kind of special national security courts might be needed. "I am confident that we can set up a structure," he said. "I haven't prejudged whether it's through a traditional federal court system, is it through military courts-martial, is it through some variant. I am confident that core principles of due process, habeas corpus and so forth can be put in place that insure we are prosecuting bad guys much more rapidly than we have up until now, that we are true to the Geneva Conventions and international norms, that we are true to our Constitution and that (we) keep the American people safe."

Discussing the impression that his personnel selections have indicated a centrist bent, Obama argued against such pigeonholing. "What we're trying to eliminate is thinking through that lens," he said, citing the example of his choice for education secretary, Arne Duncan. "He … believes that we have to have really high standards and that the status quo is unacceptable and that as a way of achieving excellence we've got to break out of some of the old dogmas," Obama said. "Is he left or right? I don't know. He's smart, and he agrees with my general assessment of where the school systems are. That's why I hired him, not because of what one wing of the education establishment or another wing thought of him."

Obama's indications of flexibility are rather abstract; he has not been called on to make the kind of difficult choices about which he speaks so eloquently. But his transition has sounded all the right themes and, if Thursday's session is any guide, his presidency promises to begin on the same hopeful, pragmatic note.

Pragmatist in chief 01/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 12:00am]

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