The pace of change under this president—frequently two or three headline events in a single news cycle—generally crowds out the chance to step back and reflect on the singular nature of Obama's leadership. Yet just look at the past week: Cairo, Germany, then the D-Day commemoration—all banner stories—followed by the front page news that Obama has now decided to take a central role in designing health-care reform instead of leaving the process largely in congressional hands.
The Republican pratfalls make news, too, but not the kind that helps them. (Thus, on Sunday Newt Gingrich reached a synthesis—and what about Newt is not synthetic?—of his one-man dialectic on Judge Sonia Sotomayor. First Newt said she was a "racist," then not. That clash of opposites appears to have yielded Newt's latest smear: that the judge is a "racialist.")
While the Republicans traffic in empty code words and remain mired in old battles, Obama has cast aside the conventional wisdom on a scale not seen since FDR—who often denied he was doing it. For example, Roosevelt never conceded that deficit spending was fueling the New Deal; instead he pledged a formulaic fealty to balanced budgets. (When he actually sought to enact that belief in 1937, a steady recovery was reversed and the country slipped into another steep downturn.)
In contrast, Obama, while accurately blaming the deficit he inherited on his predecessor—all politicians score points when they can—has added hundreds of billions of dollars to the red ink without trying to hide it. He has openly explained that spending is essential to restore demand, with government serving as the economic engine of last resort. He pledges to cut the deficit, but only after economic recovery makes it possible and prudent to do so.
It's elementary economics, but only one other president has ever publicly challenged the prevailing dogma of balanced budgets. And when John Kennedy committed that heresy in a speech at Yale in 1962, the language was carefully honed to minimize the shock. In any case, the deficits Kennedy proposed were a disappearing decimal point compared with the Obama stimulus.
Before Kennedy and after, presidents of both parties have held to the old dogma, even if, as we witnessed with Ronald Reagan, it was a doctrine more preached than practiced. Obama is not only doing but saying what's right for an economy in crisis; if he succeeds, he will have recast the entire ethos of national economic policy with a rational and honest framework for fiscal decision-making.
He's achieving an even more profound revolution—not of socialism but pragmatism—as he injects the federal government into a failing free market. Obama prefers that government not be involved in running companies such as GM or Chrysler. But even more, he prefers that entire industries not be run into the ground. It is a stunning turnaround from Reagan's avowal that government "is the problem"; sometimes, Obama insists, government must be part of the solution. So this president has upended the ideology of the last generation—not by stealth, but in public words as well as deeds.
Most presidents, if they challenge received wisdom, tread gingerly and in only one arena. The Kennedy who defended the utility of deficits at Yale also privately contemplated the beginning of a dialogue with the People's Republic of China—by providing food aid during a devastating famine and recognizing the communist regime in neighboring Mongolia. He pulled back, however, fearing a backlash at home, where the previous Democratic administration had been blamed for "losing China." It was left to Richard Nixon, playing against type, to open the door a decade later.
Obama has lifted travel restrictions to Cuba and permitted Americans with relatives there to send them money. He has launched a process that could ultimately ease and then end the embargo and gradually mitigate repression in that island nation. That's one reason why the president was so warmly received when he met with Latin American leaders. Progress here won't come easily—and is unlikely to come quickly—but Obama has broken with a policy that has never worked in 50 years—except to win votes from Cuban exiles in South Florida.
The president has taken a parallel approach to Iran. He said plainly in Cairo last week that the United States has no objection to Iran's developing nuclear power—for peaceful purposes. It's another break with another bankrupt approach that, since 1979, has spiraled from irrelevance to danger. Here, too, Obama may or may not succeed in the end. But at least he has opened the way to negotiations, with the use of force now properly regarded—at home and around the world—not as a precipitous, Cheney-esque first option, but as a well-considered last resort.
The Cairo speech most vividly revealed the transformative nature of this presidency. It wasn't just that Barack Hussein Obama spoke his middle name proudly as a way to connect with Muslims everywhere; nor was it solely his references to the Koran as "holy" or the use of Arabic phrases that few ever expected to hear from an American president. What mattered most was his candor—Iraq was a war of "choice," he said—and his unqualified reference to "Palestine" rather than "the territories," or merely "the Palestinians." His language underscored his public commitment to an independent Palestinian state.
Other presidents, from Carter to Clinton, have nudged Israel, largely behind the scenes. In Cairo, Obama openly disagreed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisting that the settlement expansion so prized by the Israeli right wing has to stop. In this, Obama remarkably appears to have the support of much of the Jewish community in the U.S. He has crystallized a mood—that while our bond with Israel is enduring, we serve the relationship best by genuine engagement, even dissent, and not by the expedient acquiescence that has generally characterized the past.
In taking a different course, the president is already making a profound difference. He reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel in the heart of Arab civilization, while at the same time winning hearts and minds there and across the Islamic world. No wonder Osama bin Laden felt compelled to issue another tape; this president is al Qaida's worst nightmare precisely because he defies stereotypes and, in Lincoln's phrase, "think[s] anew and act[s] anew."
For Obama, that is not an exception but a habit—the most distinctive aspect of his character and his presidency. From economics to foreign policy, reshaping Pentagon priorities in the face of congressional protectionism or promoting a new energy policy in the face of coal state recalcitrance, it's clear that for Barack Obama, the unexamined policy is not worth preserving. In that sense, his lack of experience in the customary cautions of Washington makes him ideally suited to this unprecedented time. Who can imagine Hillary Clinton—or, far more improbably, John McCain—daring so much change in perspective as well as in policy, and on so broad a front?
We're still only at the start. But I suspect that a generation from now Americans will look back on this period as a model of presidential leadership—from a president who consistently broke the mold.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 10 things you need to know today: December 21, 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- How I lost all my money
- Pope Francis' American problem
- How Wall Street is chipping away at reform
- A brief history of the Christmas present
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
Subscribe to the Week