Keystone XL: Obama the Pragmatist

By Bob Burnett
Friday April 05, 2013 - 08:41:00 AM

On April 3rd and 4th, President Obama spoke at several San Francisco fundraisers. While he didn’t specifically mention the Keystone XL pipeline, the tenor of his remarks indicated that he’s likely to approve the controversial project. Obama seems to be most influenced by his inherent political pragmatism.

I’ve heard Barack Obama speak on several occasions. The first was February 19, 2007, at a San Francisco ore-election fundraiser with a lengthy question and answer session. Towards the end of the event a woman asked then presidential-candidate Obama what his position was on same-sex marriage. For an instant, Obama seemed surprised; then he gathered himself and responded he was aware of strong feelings on both sides of this issue and his position was evolving. Five years later, in May of 2012, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage.

What took Obama so long to make up his mind? No doubt he needed to clarify his own moral position – although the Protestant denomination he was baptized into, the United Church of Christ, announced its support for same-sex marriage in 2005. But I’m sure the President carefully weighed the political consequences and, last May, thought the timing was right.

Over the last six years I’ve realized Barack Obama has several personas. On occasion he moves us with stirring oratory; that’s Reverend Obama, the rock star. Once in a while, he turns philosophical; that’s Professor Obama, the student of American history. On April 3rd, I saw Politician Obama, the pragmatic leader of the Democratic Party. 

Obama has learned that, as President, he only gets a fixed amount of political capital each year and has learned to ration it. In 2007, he didn’t feel it was worth stirring up controversy by supporting same-sex marriage; in 2012 he thought it was. He’s a cautious pragmatist. He doesn’t make snap decisions or ones that will divert his larger agenda.  

Intuitively, most Democrats know this about the President. At the beginning of 2012, many Democratic stalwarts were less than thrilled by the prospect of a second Obama term. While their reasons varied, there was a common theme, “Obama hasn’t kept his promises to my constituency.” There were lingering complaints that 2009’s stimulus package should have been bigger and a communal whine, “Obama should have listened to us.” Nonetheless, by the end of the Democratic convention on September 6th most Dems had come around.  

In part, this transformation occurred because from January to September of 2012 Dems scrutinized Mitt Romney and were horrified by what they saw. In January some had muttered, “There’s no difference between Obama and Romney,” but nine months later none believed that. While many Democrats were not thrilled by Obama’s first-term performance, they saw him as preferable to Romney on a wide range of issues. 

In 2009, Obama got a bad rap from some Dems because they believed he did not fight hard enough for the fiscal stimulus and affordable healthcare. In March of 2011, veteran Washington columnist, Elizabeth Drew, described Obama as

a somewhat left-of-center pragmatist, and a man who has avoided fixed positions for most of his life. Even his health care proposal—denounced by the right as a ‘government takeover’ and ‘socialism’—was essentially moderate or centrist. When he cut a deal on the tax bill, announced on December 7 [2010], he pragmatically concluded that he did not have the votes to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, and in exchange for giving in on that he got significant concessions from the Republicans, such as a fairly lengthy extension of unemployment insurance and the cut in payroll taxes. Making this deal also left him time to achieve other things—ratification of the START treaty, the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell.
Drew’s description of the President as a “left-of-center pragmatist” resonates with my sense of him. He is a political pragmatist who, over the past five years, has learned to guard his political capital and focus it on his highest priorities. 

In this year’s State-of-the-Union Address half of the President’s remarks concerned jobs and the economy.

We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs – but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.
He also spoke passionately about the need to address to address global warming, “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.” But it’s clear that’s a secondary objective. 

At one of the Bay Area fundraisers, President Obama observed that his big challenge is to show middle-class families that, “we are working just as hard for them as we are for an environmental agenda.” 

Obama isn’t going to block the Keystone XL pipeline because he doesn’t believe that he can make the case his action will help the middle-class. He’s conserving his political capital. He’s being pragmatic. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at