"I'm an eternal optimist. That doesn't mean I'm a sap."
-- Barack Obama, visiting with selected columnists aboard Air Force One on Friday, Feb. 13, and as quoted by one of those columnists, Bob Herbert, in The New York Times.
The conversation from which the above quotation was lifted was as encouraging as any presidential interview I've heard or read about since ... well, I can't recall.
It was better than anything of the past eight years, which goes without saying. And Bill Clinton never quite provided these kinds of encouraging words or quite this kind of encouraging manner. He never needed to, for one thing.
This interview helps explain why Barack Obama is polling higher personally than his policies, specifically his stimulus measure. It's because he conveys a certain command, a certain cool, a certain reason, a certain essential patience and something in the way of a credible long-term vision.
His stimulus plan may be hooey. It may accomplish nothing. His treasury secretary's bank rescue plan is, as yet, nonexistent. The president's home mortgage restructuring plan offers a touch of sanity-based hope, except that it will cost maybe $100 billion we don't have on top of $800 billion we didn't have that he just spent for supposed stimulus and in the face of a trillion or more that will be needed for the treasury secretary's bank plan.
That's not to criticize the plans. It's to say we're in a holy and unprecedented mess and that no one can be sure what to do.
The best to be hoped for, then, is a president who keeps his head and makes some sense and keeps vital hope alive.
That opening quote was in response to a question about Obama's overtures to Republicans for bipartisanship and how they were thoroughly rebuffed. Obama said he'd make these overtures again and again every time he offered a plan to solve a problem. And he said he'd change that plan again and again if opponents made good-faith suggestions he found constructive.
But that's when he said he would be no sap.
Obama was asked about the way the market collapsed the day of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's woefully underwhelming and vague outline of a bank rescue plan. Obama replied that worrying about one-day boosts or declines in the stock market, or periodic booms and busts in the economy, was a big part of what got us in this quagmire in the first place.
"My job is to help the country take the long view," he said, implicitly warning that there'll be many bad-news days in the short view.
He went on to talk about how we need to treat this crisis as an opportunity, one not appropriate for a quick-fix, but one by which our eventual recovery would be one less likely to invite repeats of the same mistakes.
Indeed, if we came out of this tomorrow somehow, we'd probably barrel ourselves right back in.
Obama told of his vision of a country in 30 years that is more energy independent. He sees one with schools doing better. He sees one that won't be spending more per capita on health care than any in the world.
Are these delusions of historical grandeur?
Again, Obama seems to keep an impressively level head. He told the columnists that sometimes there are moments when significant change can be made. He said this was "possibly, not certainly" such a time, and that all any single individual could do, even a president, was "help guide it."
The articulation, the vision -- those are very good things. But it's the restraint and mitigation that set the right tone and impress most of all. And this new president will need much more of them.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.