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Biographer: Obama Used To Compromising

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And bipartisanship may well be at the top President Obama's list of resolutions for the New Year. His recent success finding compromise between Democrats and Republicans produced a flurry of legislative victories in the lame-duck session that wrapped up last week.

And a new biography of Mr. Obama emphasizes that this is not a new approach for him.

NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama outraged many Democrats when he agreed to extend tax cuts for the wealthy - something he'd campaigned against. Defending the deal in a White House news conference, Mr. Obama said his North Star is what helps the American people.

President BARACK OBAMA: There are going to be times where my preferred option, what I'm absolutely positive is right, I can't get done. And so then my question is: Does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way? Because I'm keeping my eye on the long term.

HORSLEY: Some saw the tax cut compromise as a course correction - a sign Mr. Obama is reinventing himself in response to the midterm shellacking. But Harvard historian James Kloppenberg says Mr. Obama has always shown a willingness to tack this way and that in pursuit of his larger goals.

Professor JAMES KLOPPENBERG (Historian, Harvard): Most people who see this as a surprise really don't know him very well.

HORSLEY: Kloppenberg got to know Mr. Obama by scouring his books and speeches and talking to his old professors and community organizing colleagues. He shares what he learned in a new book called "Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition."

Prof. KLOPPENBERG: It seems to me that if people had a deeper sense of who this man is, neither the right nor the left would be as puzzled by him and perhaps as impatient with him, because they would see that this is who he's been for decades. And I think he's not going to change.

HORSLEY: Kloppenberg argues that Obama's political style is shaped in part by his understanding of American history as a long, unfinished conversation. When the president talks about our ongoing struggle to perfect our union, he's less interested in perfection than that ongoing struggle, in which compromise is sometimes required.

Pres. OBAMA: This country was founded on compromise. I couldn't go through the front door at this country's founding.

HORSLEY: Kloppenberg says Mr. Obama is also guided by pragmatism. By that, he doesn't mean simply following the path of least resistance, but a philosophy, born in the 19th century, that challenges absolutes and welcomes open-ended debate.

Prof. KLOPPENBERG: That's not to say he doesn't have principles. The question is: How do you take your principles and put them into practice when you're operating in a world in which people disagree with you profoundly?

Pres. OBAMA: This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. You know, the New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

HORSLEY: In that White House news conference, Mr. Obama echoed comments he made at Notre Dame last year. There, he told graduates to hold firm to their faith, but he cautioned against self-righteousness, adding that faith necessarily admits doubt. The president acknowledged his own doubts just last week when he was asked about his long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage.

Pres. OBAMA: My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama has written that in years to come, he may be seen on the wrong side of history on this issue. That's a rare admission for any politician. Kloppenberg applauds Mr. Obama's willingness to question his beliefs and take seriously those with different beliefs. But it's not a style necessarily suited for today's shouting matches on cable television.

Prof. KLOPPENBERG: It certainly is out of step with our political discourse. And that's the problem with our political discourse. Those who fault him for not becoming the person who would be in tune with that hyper-polarized debate seem to me to be interested in feeding this problem. I think he's interested in addressing this problem and solving it.

HORSLEY: So look for Mr. Obama to keep tacking this way and that as he navigates the new year, following his own North Star and his own nature as he tries to lead this big, diverse and imperfect union.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.