Comparisons between President Obama and President Franklin Roosevelt are becoming common, and for good cause. Both swept to power amidst a collapsing economy, and both came to Washington with newly strengthened Democratic majorities ? majorities elected on a promise of change.
One lesson I hope that Obama will learn from FDR is the idea of government through experimentation. Roosevelt’s New Deal was an age when the administration enacted a wealth of new programs, some seemingly at odds with others. Roosevelt brought in a team of smart young staffers, and let them see which programs worked, and then had them take what worked and turn it into new programs.
Ideology isn’t the engine of government. Reality is. Of course, to determine what works and what doesn’t, one must have hopes, dreams, and expectations against which to match results. Values, then, are crucial to effective governance. But clinging to a particular ideological solution can only hamper our progress.
FDR knew this, and I believe that Barack Obama does as well. Bringing Rahm Emanuel on board as Chief of Staff is a good move, because Rahm knows this. Rahm is motivated to win, and if possible to drink the blood of his enemies.
You can see Obama’s pragmatism not just in his interview with TfK two and a half years ago, but in the way he talks about energy. He’s happy to consider drilling, and to fund research into clean coal. And he wants to move with deliberate speed on nuclear power. But he also insists that we have to fund research into solar, solar baseload, geothermal, wind, hydro, and wave and tidal power. I happen to think coal and nuclear are not great long-term options, but there’s no reason not to give them a seat at the table. If I’m right, they’ll fail on their merits, and there will be no object to redirecting resources to more successful options. And if safe nuclear power (including safe nuclear storage) or clean coal technology becomes feasible, we’ll move forward on that front.
The energy crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and our policy response has to allow for inventiveness and flexibility. The financial crisis we face is unique, too, and requires an experimental approach. I am confident that President-elect Obama has learned those lessons, and it falls to all of us to help the new administration see what works and what doesn’t.