President-elect Barack Obama was swept into office on a tide of hope for a brighter future, a future where the U.S. again will be a moral force in the world, where economic justice and tax-burden parity are established at home, and where post-partisan cooperation rules Washington.
But much of the bold agenda Mr. Obama articulated on the campaign trail, such as tax breaks for the middle class, expanded spending on alternative energy and health care finance reform, must be set aside as he deals with a shrinking economy.
In that environment, what ideological tone will the Obama White House sound? Muted liberalism, full-throttle progressivism or cautious centrism?
The president-elect’s Cabinet choices are being scrutinized for answers. Is his choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary signaling a “stay the course” foreign policy? And what about Republican Rep. Ray LaHood as transportation secretary — is this evidence of a sincere post-partisan approach?
Environmentalists are upset that Mr. Obama chose Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department. Sen. Salazar, they fear, will let private industry harvest more natural resources on federal lands.
Mr. Obama, in nominating Sen. Salazar, suggested the direction he is heading on the environment: “It’s time for a new kind of leadership in Washington that’s committed to using our lands in a responsible way to benefit all our families. That means ensuring that even as we are promoting development where it makes sense, we are also fulfilling our obligation to protect our national treasures.”
And then there is Mr. Obama’s choice of the Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor, to deliver an invocation at the Jan. 20 inauguration, which angered many gays. The Rev. Warren worked to pass Proposition 8 in California, which repealed a same-sex marriage provision in that state.
An Obama spokeswoman defended choosing the Rev. Warren, saying: “This was a decision that was based on President-elect Obama’s commitment to finding common ground with people with conflicting and divergent news.”
And that may be cause for concern. Hopes are high that Mr. Obama will not become an ideologue of the left, marching in lock step with old-school Democrats to the beat of a tired liberal agenda. At the same time, the new president should have the strength of his convictions, and not fear offending centrists.
The last two Democratic presidents took different tacks on campaign promises. Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers, as promised, the day after his inauguration. Bill Clinton backed away from his pledge to end the ban on gays in the military, and the silly “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy resulted.
Rather than find a middle ground between his promises and political pragmatism, the new president must hold fast to the principles that drove his campaign. Mr. Obama won 8.5 million more votes than Sen. John McCain, a big win when compared with the 3 million-vote margin incumbent President Bush won in his 2004 re-election. But in the execution of policy development, the president must be willing to compromise.
To be both bold in principle and pragmatic in application, Mr. Obama must summon the wisdom of Solomon. But this was at the core of his message of “change we can believe in” and the American people expect no less.