George Graham

Obama Realizes That Politics is the Art of the Possible

Let’s hear it from the right: “Barack Obama is presumptuous and arrogant.” Now, let’s hear it from the left: “Barack Obama has no backbone; he doesn’t stand up for our beliefs.”

Obviously, both criticisms can’t be accurate because, if you think about it, they’re mutually contradictory. Here’s my take on the subject: Obama is too intelligent.

That’s right. His complex reasoning is beyond the grasp of many political observers. Hooked on sound bites and shibboleths, these observers neither know nor care how things get done in the real world.

Nobody in this world gets exactly what he or she wants. I don’t always get my own way in my home, and I’m sure you don’t always get your own way in your home. Marriage is a three-legged race. One leg is tied to your spouse’s. You pull one way and your spouse pulls another – so to get anywhere, you often have to compromise.

That’s kind of the way it is in a democracy. We’re like a mess of blue crabs tied up in a croaker sack. The crabs all push and pull in different directions, gradually moving the sack along. Smart leaders know how to prod the crabs in order to move the sack in the desired direction.

If Obama were a dictator, his approach would be different. Dictators issue decrees and usually their subjects follow orders (or else!). That’s not how it works in Washington (despite George W. Bush’s efforts to the contrary). In the American political system, different folks are committed to different strokes. And all representatives of the people get to influence the government’s policies one way or another.

So it was with FISA. For whatever reasons, the 440 congressmen and 100 senators were intractably divided on the merits of a bill designed to make anti-terrorist operatives more effective. It took a lot of negotiation to finally work out a compromise that might pass both houses and get the President’s signature.

The bill was designed to help prevent terrorist attacks. But the administration also included a provision to protect telecommunications companies (and the administration) from lawsuits arising out of illegal wiretaps that were done before the new law would go into effect. Obama opposed that provision – as did most of the political left. But when he looked over the bill in its entirety, the Illinois senator came to the conclusion that it was necessary for the country’s safety. He decided that protection of the Bush administration and its partners in crime was a price he was willing to pay in order to get the bill passed.

And so it is with an energy bill that the United States Senate is considering. The bill would finally get America moving in the direction of alternative fuel development, energy conservation and other goals dear to the heart of Democrats. But to get Republican senators to climb aboard, the Democrats have to give big oil a plum: removing a federal ban on offshore drilling.

Lifting the federal ban would not release the brake on offshore drilling. That would be up to individual states. If the people of Florida don’t want oil rigs menacing their beaches, they have the power to say no. But if Louisiana wants more rigs (like the kind responsible for those catastrophic Katrina oil spills), they could say yes.

Once again, Obama is inclined to accept a concession to the oil companies as the price to be paid for a bill that he sees as vital to the country’s wellbeing. He knows offshore drilling will do nothing to lower the price of gas in America, and will endanger wildlife and tourism. But he thinks the gains to be derived from other aspects of the legislation are so critical that he is willing to pass the whole thing if he cannot pass just the parts that he wants.

A true hero of the left would not think like that. Die-hard liberals (and die-hard conservatives) are willing to die for their beliefs. Their motto is: It’s my way or the highway. And the result of this kind of thinking is gridlock.

You can see the effects in the paralysis that has gripped Congress for so long. If no one is willing to compromise, nothing gets done.

It seems to me that Obama’s message from the beginning has been: If we can’t get exactly what we want, let’s take what we can get. Let’s agree to disagree on the things we cannot agree on, but let’s find ways to take action on the things that we can agree on.

As he said at the 2004 Democratic convention, there’s not a Democratic America and a Republican America; there’s the United States of America.

With Obama at its helm, the United States of America would be able to achieve remarkable things. But some of those things can be achieved only through the art of compromise.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for