After the most action-packed first three weeks of any president since maybe Abraham Lincoln, President Obama revealed a subtle but significant change in tone: Maybe bipartisanship wasn't all that it had been cracked up to be.
"Look," he told five columnists on board Air Force One last Friday, "once a decision was made by the Republican leadership to have a party-line vote a decision that I think occurred before I met with them then I'm not sure that there was a whole host of things that we were going to do that was going to make a difference."
Obama had invited the columnists including me on his first visit home to Chicago since he became president.
Sitting in shirtsleeves with his elbows on the conference table, he took our questions for 55 minutes in the wood-paneled conference room on board the modified presidential Boeing 747. Back on Capitol Hill, his stimulus package trimmed down to a $787 billion was nearing final passage in Congress. Only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House voted for the package.
So much for bipartisanship, one might think. But Obama was not about to let a wall of Republican opposition stop his show. He has other fish to fry. If he couldn't bridge the divide on the stimulus package, other legislative measures are coming down the road that don't poke partisan buttons as easily.
The mammoth recovery package "may have exaggerated" core differences between Democrats and Republicans as to whether tax cuts or public spending can best stimulate growth, he said. Future debates over issues such as the budget, entitlements, foreign policy offer opportunities for "greater flexibility," especially if some "countervailing pressures" arise from voters, governors, business leaders and others who nudge Republicans and Democrats into working together.
And the stimulus clash could be kid stuff compared to the "really tough" part of his economic recovery goals, he said, which is to "get private credit flowing again" and avoid "potential catastrophe in the banking system."
"You know, I am an eternal optimist," he said, pausing to strike a delicate balance between hope and healthy skepticism. "That doesn't mean I'm a sap." Headline writers thank you for that, sir.
His optimism grows out of certain realities that don't get much attention in the heat-seeking media.
He already has made enough policy changes to give a sense of psychic whiplash to a world that looks with bemused wonder at this country. By executive order he has outlawed torture, ordered the closing of Guantanamo, added funds to the children's health insurance program and reversed family planning restrictions on overseas funds.
And on the financial debate, he gave the sort of balanced, detailed and even nuanced analysis in which op-ed columnists revel and from which the previous president shied away.
He was asked, for example, if he foresees a time when more drastic action might be required to save the financial markets, as in the banking crises in Japan and Sweden.
Obama weighed the pros and cons of each and, without committing himself, seemed to lean in the Scandinavian direction.
Japan failed to intervene forcefully enough in the 1990s "they sort of papered things over and never really bit the bullet" and fell into an economic "lost decade," he said.
A "good argument" could be made for Sweden's example, he said, which temporarily nationalized its failed banks, then sold them off. But "they only had a handful of banks, he pointed out. "We've got thousands of banks. The scale, the magnitude, of what we're dealing with is much bigger."
"But here's the bottom line," he said. "We will do what works."
In other words, he is not ruling out nationalizing weak banks, regardless of how many right-wingers call him a socialist.
Neither will certain key Republicans, it turns out. Last Sunday, conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Budget Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" that he won't take "nationalizing the banks" off the table, either.
He was not "comfortable" with the idea, he said, but "we have got so many toxic assets" spread throughout the banking system "that we're going to have to do something that no one ever envisioned a year ago, no one likes."
If that offers hope for Obama's optimism, it is because Graham, like Obama, has a streak of intelligent pragmatism in him. He's able to overlook what's "left" or what's "right" in favor of what works.