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Which Obama will emerge as Republicans take charge in the House?

Credit: Princeton University Press

Republican leaders in the upcoming Congress made it clear on last Sunday’s talk shows that they will stand firm to retain tax breaks for the rich when it comes time to examine the expiring Bush tax cuts, either in the lame duck session this year or in the regular session next year. Rep. Eric Kantor of Virginia, the probable incoming House majority leader, was particularly firm: no compromise. At the same time, President Barack Obama is already floating compromise ideas, calling for a “conversation”  on taxes and other controversial legislation.

It has been a very long time since anyone described the 2008 election as ushering in a new era of post-partisanship; indeed, with the advance of the Tea Party, national politics looks more polarized, more angry, than at any time in many years.

The ball is clearly in Obama’s court, and we may wonder which Obama will come to play: the Chicago pol who was mentored by hard-knuckled veterans of that city’s famous political machine, or the “Kumbaya” healer who caused so many to believe he could use intelligence and compassion to transcend partisan nastiness and usher in a 21st Century New Frontier.

In some manner, much the same expectations and contrasts accompanied John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960; his mentors in Boston were every bit as tough as Obama’s, and he also brought the hope of a new generation, what we later called “The Best and the Brightest,” to mark their strengths and their flaws. Kennedy was able to straddle both expectations, but he failed in three years to accomplish what Obama has in two.

Kennedy also faced conservative Republican opposition, but Barry Goldwater would not be comfortable in the Tea Party, although he was an early precursor for that movement. Obama is in a tighter spot politically, and much will depend on the style as well as the substance of his approach to the ascendant Republican insurgents. Which Obama will emerge?

An interesting guide is James T. Kloppenberg, chairman of the history department at Harvard University, and author of an important new book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition, published this year by Princeton University Press.

Kloppenberg, in contrast to most readers, looks not to Dreams from My Father as Obama’s most important book — at least not for this purpose — but rather to the less-successful Audacity of Hope, a book many political observers (including myself) felt read too much like a political platform and was not as insightful as Dreams. But Kloppenberg, in his book and excerpts in Harvard Magazine, finds in Audacity of Hope evidence of Obama’s pragmatic approach to politics. The approach is deeply rooted in American political tradition — from James Madison, through the philosophers William James and John Dewey, and to the present day.

In one magazine excerpt, Kloppenberg writes, “Obama realizes that Americans have always sought a variety of goals consistent with their very different ideals and aspirations. Democracy means squabbling about differences, reaching tentative agreements, then immediately resuming debate. He understands that disagreement is more American than apple pie. Obama also sees something many of his most enthusiastic supporters on the left have trouble accepting: the willingness to endure acceptable compromises instead of demanding decisive victory over one’s opponents has been a recurring feature of American democratic culture.”

If Kloppenberg is correct, we are likely to see Obama’s pragmatic side on display as he attempts some form of “conversation” with Congress and the American electorate. Kloppenberg points to health-care reform as an example; he points out that Obama let Congress do most of the drafting of the package, accepting many compromises along the way. Expect more of that in months ahead; Republicans cannot repeal the law but they can cast roadblocks on funding, and compromise will be needed — or at least sought. Energy policy is another area where Obama will seek compromise; cap-and-trade is probably dead on arrival, but there is a large constituency for green building and alternative energy.

The great American presidents, even such opposites as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, have all been pragmatic, and dogmatic opposition frequently backfires on Congress, most notably in recent years when Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in a showdown with President Bill Clinton.

In Audacity of Hope, Obama recognized (in 2006) the reality of hardball politics, which later that year gave Democrats the House: “Maybe the critics are right. Maybe there’s no escaping our great political divide, an endless clash of armies, and any attempts to alter the rules of engagement are futile . . . We paint our faces red or blue and cheer on our side and boo their side, and if it takes a late hit or cheap shot to beat the other team, so be it, for winning is all that matters.”

Obama continued, rejecting the all-out partisanship and attack ads of campaigns and calling for reason: “I imagine they (ordinary citizens) are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting. They are out there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.”

It’s been four years and two elections since Obama wrote his second book, and lessons have been learned, some the hard way. But the President continues to call for conversations rather than confrontations. Perhaps it is a futile hope given the harsh tone of Congressional Republican Leaders and the Tea Party insurgents. Is it to be the reasoned intellectual approach of the great pragmatists or the scorched-earth rhetoric of Newt Gingrich? Stay tuned.

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