First principles

Inside the Obama campaign, we called them our “first principles” — three key measures of what an Obama presidency would mean to the nation: his desire to move beyond the divisive politics of the past, in an effort to move forward on big issues; a commitment to take on wealthy, entrenched special interests that have set the Washington agenda for decades; and a willingness to tell the American people not simply what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to know.

It has proven to be a reliable guide to how President Barack Obama approaches his job.

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No, his inauguration didn’t erase the cynical tactics that Washington Republicans continue to use to boost their political prospects in the midterm elections. But the president’s efforts to reach out to Republicans have not gone unnoticed by the public. In a February New York Times poll, 62 percent of respondents said the president was trying to work with congressional Republicans to get something done, while only 32 percent disagreed. By contrast, only 29 percent of those surveyed felt the GOP was trying to work with Obama, while 62 percent said it was not.

While the president didn’t secure many GOP votes on the Recovery Act or health insurance reform, many Republicans seem more pleased with the laws than their votes would indicate. Earlier this year, the White House released a list of nearly two dozen House Republicans who had taken credit for jobs created in their districts by the very legislation they opposed. Last month, after months of attacking the Democratic health reform bill, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a press release that touted provisions of the measure Grassley had written. Maybe the GOP rank and file isn’t as opposed to the Obama agenda as it’d have its party leaders believe.

On the principle of challenging special interests, Obama has certainly earned his keep. The insurance industry has lobbied furiously against health reform for decades. But despite its best efforts this time around, Obama didn’t blink. As a result, we have a law that bans the worst insurance-company abuses — from denials of coverage due to pre-existing conditions to dropping coverage of those who get sick. Last month, the president signed a law to eliminate a sweetheart deal in the federal student loan program that showered nearly $70 billion on private banks serving as middlemen to financially strapped college students. The banks fought like hell to protect their profits, but Obama stood firm, using the money to expand Pell Grants and make it easier for students to repay their loans after graduation.

This week, the president took his fight for Wall Street reform to New York City, directly challenging those who gamed the nation’s financial system and helped cause a fiscal meltdown that destroyed millions of American jobs, homes and retirement plans. Dispatching 1,500 lobbyists to Washington, Wall Street executives have made it clear that they will do everything in their power to stop the president’s plan to hold them accountable. But right now, the smart money’s on Obama.

The third tenet — Obama’s penchant for speaking truth to power — has occurred with such frequency that political consultants like me shop for Maalox at Sam’s Club. After taking office, the president understood bold action was required to prevent another Great Depression, and knew that rescuing various sectors of the economy would make him a target for Republicans seeking short-term political advantage.

He did it anyway. “The plan is not perfect,” he said of the Recovery Act. “I can’t tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans.” Likewise, the president saw the political perils associated with overhauling the nation’s healthcare system during his first year in office, but he believed the crisis of soaring costs could no longer be ignored, even if his poll numbers took a hit. “I don’t know how this plays politically,” he said before the final vote was taken. “But I know it’s right.”

The process of making good on a campaign promise once in office can be messy, and it often causes good people to lose their bearings. But even in a town as ethically unkempt as Washington, President Obama hasn’t forgotten his first principles.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.

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