You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The New Man

Of all the contradictions embodied by Barack Obama, none is more fascinating than the tension between his clear instinct toward idealism and his equally apparent devotion to pragmatism. It was the idealistic Obama that the country got to know first--through the soaring exhortations of a 2004 convention speech, and later as we began to digest the rough outlines of a resume that included a stint as a community organizer in a poor Chicago neighborhood. But, over the course of the 2008 campaign--even as he darted around the country delivering speeches crammed with paeans to hope--a different side of Obama revealed itself. This Obama was disciplined, practical, and cautious--politically liberal, yes, but in many ways temperamentally conservative. He was also decidedly unafraid of the trade-offs, compromises, and conflicts inherent to electoral politics.

Democrats have warmed to both sides of Obama, and rightly so. The party and the country have learned through recent experience that neither idealism nor pragmatism is much good unless coupled with the other. It isn't exactly a question, then, of whether Obama the idealist or Obama the pragmatist should run the country for the next four years. Clearly, he will draw on both impulses--as he should. The real question is how Obama will determine the relative balance between the two. And there are reasons to suspect that Obama's instinct toward pragmatism will win out more often than not. For one thing, Washington is set up to tame brash plans and big ideas. No president is above these rules, and Obama will probably find himself bending to them. But there will be an additional factor pulling the new administration toward pragmatism: Presidents tend to react to the perceived failures of those who preceded them. Republicans saw Clinton as undisciplined, so Bush established an administration that was secretive and loyal. Democrats see Bush as cavalier--so, if Obama follows the usual pattern, it will mean an administration heavily inclined toward caution.

None of this would be terrible, of course. There are good reasons to wish for a return to prudence in government after the past eight years. And yet we hope that Obama does not venture too far in this direction. Even as he goes about playing the game of politics as it was meant to be played, Obama must remember that the people who put him in office were not just attracted to his sobriety; they were also attracted to the spark of idealism he has always seemed to convey.

The principles to which this magazine is committed--and which we hope Obama will act on--are tied together by a sense of idealism about what government can accomplish when it sets out to improve lives and ameliorate injustice. Obama has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform a broken health care system and affirm the principle that, in a decent society, quality medical attention is a birthright. He faces a climate-change emergency requiring radical government measures. And he inherits an economy that needs not only to be revived, but also to be reformed--to be made greener and more equal and less rapacious.

Around the globe, the temptation for Obama to run away from ideals, and fall back on interests, will be great. Bush, after all, has badly tainted foreign-policy idealism. But, instead of abandoning idealism, Obama should strive to save it. That means fulfilling our obligations to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan--providing them with as much stability and freedom from tyranny as we have within our means to ensure. It means using American power to stop genocide, and dealing unflinchingly with regimes--from Iran to Burma to China--that suppress their own people or threaten others. And it means revivifying our role as the vanguard in crafting global efforts to check the spread of nuclear weapons and carbon emissions.

In 1960, The New Republic ran an editorial that began on the magazine's cover. Its title was "These New Men," and its subject, in part, was the hard-headed idealism of the young generation of liberals--led by John Kennedy--who had just taken over the Democratic Party, and who the magazine hoped would show "a commitment to the widest possibilities of life." "We share the sense of great-things-in-the-making," TNR wrote, adding that it was "impressed by the idealism" of these leaders because it was "not an idealism that expends itself in moral pronouncements. ... They all have a controlled impatience; they want action, but they calculate the odds."

Idealism, in other words, had to be tempered by pragmatism. Yet neither could it be put aside entirely. Of course, this isn't a mystical formula and possesses its own perils. But, now that he has won the White House, Obama should not forget that he sold himself to voters as an idealist. From him, they have felt the jolt of great things in the making.

By The Editors