Clinton and Obama: Two Presidents Bound In a Common Thread of Pragmatism

After President Bill Clinton electrified the Democratic National Convention last night, President Obama walked onto the stage, and the two embraced. Bill Clinton left no doubt which direction he thinks America should take. President Clinton dismantled nearly every Romney-Ryan lie in a single speech, and refocused the country - captivated by the style and poise only Bill Clinton can deliver - on the importance of this election: will we support President Obama, the man who over uncompromising GOP obstructionism rescued the economy from the brink of what would have made the Great Depression look like the good old days, or will we be fooled again by the Republicans who say, as President Clinton masterfully summarized, "We left him a total mess, and he didn't clean it all up in 3 and a half years. So fire him and put us back in!"?

As President Clinton went through the lies from the Republicans and simultaneously outlined the historic achievements of the Obama administration - finally making affordable health care a right, rescuing more than a million jobs by saving the American auto industry, and massively expanding aid for students among other things, I saw why Presidents Clinton and Obama are joined at the hip: not simply because they are both Democratic presidents. Not even because they have a shared vision of America that is achieved through expanded opportunity and shared responsibility. But because they share not just a vision of America but a vision of effective leadership: pragmatism.

As Bill Clinton chided the Republicans for refusing to compromise with President Obama in order to move our country forward, each and every American - and especially each and every progressive - should be reminded of a simple truth: without compromise and without pragmatic leadership, nothing of significance will ever get done. Our very Constitution was an aggregation of compromises, and our founders set up a process that requires compromise to move forward.

President Obama stuck to this essential lesson of leadership from the beginning of his presidency. Even when the Republicans were hell bent on obstructing everything, Obama forged a path within his own party to pass the largest stimulus package in American history. It wasn't easy, and it took compromising with some within the Democratic party. Even when Congress stood silent on doing something about an energy crisis on our shores, and energy prices on the rise, the President brought together business and labor to double the mileage standards by 2025 - without Congress.

While a lot of liberal dogmatists are fond of tearing apart Democrats like Max Baucus, President Obama did the smart thing by not burning his bridge with Baucus during the stimulus discussions. It was, after all, reconciliation instructions issued by Max Baucus as the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that were able to expand the subsidies in health care reform and along with it, make the most significant reforms in student loan happen in a generation.

Speaking of health care - a subject near and dear to my heart - here too pragmatism was the president's most potent weapon. But he got no votes from the Republicans, you say. And you're right. But too often, we get into a frame of mind that compromise is only between political sides. It is not. Doing health care reform - something presidents have tried and failed at for nearly a century - wasn't simply a job of bringing political factions together. It was about bringing interests together - patients and providers, hospitals and drugmakers, employers and individuals. Without strong reforms in insurance regulations, there would be no health reform, and the health insurance industry would always stand opposed to meaningful reform. Knowing that, the President had to bring together the rest of the groups, so that the insurance companies wouldn't be able to derail reform. And guess what? He did. Hospitals agreed to save money for Medicare, knowing there would be more paying customers. Drug companies discounted Medicare Part D drugs for much of the same reason. The American Medical Association endorsed health care reform. Patient groups, advocates for the sick and the poor came together to push through health care form.

You can take Wall Street reform, too. While the two respective political extremes were yelling either that banks continue to be left to their own devices and regulating themselves, or be nationalized and all of their assets seized by the government, President Obama had to forge a path of pragmatic compromise not simply because neither extreme had enough votes, but because neither extreme got it right. We needed to re-regulate the financial sector for the benefit of consumers who use financial products. So the president fought for the banks to fund any future bailouts themselves, empower regulators to wind down institutions threatening systemwide collapse, and to create the nation's first federal agency solely focused on consumer financial protection.

You can go down the line. Education, health care, environment and energy, and civil rights - in all of these areas President Obama made far-reaching reforms, and he did so with fierce commitment to the interests of ordinary Americans and a pragmatic leadership style that looked first at foremost at results rather than at ideological checklists. President Clinton didn't simply physically embrace President Obama last night, throughout his speech, he wholeheartedly endorsed President Obama's approach to leadership and his governing philosophy.

At the center of pragmatic governance is a truth often ignored by ideological extremes and brought into stark focus by president Clinton last night: no one is right all the time, and even a broken clock is right twice a day. The aversion to compromise comes from an arrogant view of the world in which a given ideology is always right and anything straying from it is spawn from the Devil. We cannot let ourselves be overtaken by these sorts of notions.

Because President Obama reached out again and again, because he incorporated Republican ideas into his legislation - not simply for the sake of bipartisanship but because he thought those were good ideas - while the Republicans, from Day One choose to obstruct this president, the American people now hold Republicans more responsible for gridlock. Because President Obama never wavered from his commitment, millions of children can no longer be denied health insurance coverage, and millions of young adults can stay on their parents' insurance plan. Because President Obama lead, students have greater access to federal loans and Pell grants. Because President Obama didn't back away from doing what is right for the fear of being accused of 'compromise,' today, unemployment benefits are still available to the long-term unemployed, the working poor got the first tax cut in generations (in form of the payroll tax cut), and the American auto industry is roaring again.

Only a pragmatic leader can be a successful leader. Only a pragmatic thinker can achieve results in the real world. Only a pragmatic president can make big changes happen in America. I am so proud to be a Democrat today - and to be a supporter of President Obama's today, because I know that our party - and our president - has always stood ready to consider good ideas from the other side in good faith. We have always known that patriotism has no room for rejecting a good idea simply because it isn't our idea. And today, the Republican ticket is still having to cater to the most extreme elements of their party because they turned away from the idea of pragmatic compromise.

If, as Americans, we want to see our country succeed, we must reward pragmatic leadership, bold vision, and a results-oriented approach. No ideological dogma can be a substitute for a solution, for moving our country forward. President Clinton knows that. President Obama knows that. When Americans re-elect President Obama in November, that is the message we will be sending.