Since the start of his presidency, I’ve been wrestling with three questions about Barack Obama: Did he take on too much? Is he too hands-off in his dealings with Congress? And the biggest, which puzzled me throughout the campaign as well — where is he, exactly, on the political spectrum?

These are questions without certain answers. For one thing, the counterfactual can never be fully known: What if he hadn’t chosen to press health care and climate change and financial reform? What if he had been more clear about his bottom line on health reform earlier in the process? For another, the story of Obama’s presidency is still unfolding. The first chapters do not presage the outcome.

The common wisdom — commoner than ever, given Obama’s plunging polls — is that he tried to do too much too fast, that Americans’ appetite for change turned out to be not quite as big as the heaping serving Obama put on their plates.

This assessment oversimplifies matters. Obama proposed an enormous agenda, but his focus remained chiefly on health reform. The decision to press simultaneously for climate change and financial reform did not unduly drain resources from the main mission.

As to the overarching concern of the economy, it’s fair to criticize specifics of the stimulus package. But once the stimulus was passed and the financial markets stabilized, there was not much more the administration could do to conjure up jobs. Dropping everything to focus on the economy would have been more atmospherics than anything else.

The tougher issue is whether, given faltering economic conditions and growing public anxiety about deficits, Obama should have stuck with his plan to restructure the health care system or chosen a more modest course. Smaller might have been politically smarter, but this was not so clear at the outset. As a practical matter, tinkering at the health care margins does not yield much improvement in cost control or coverage. And it would have been enormously difficult for a Democratic president with fat congressional majorities to turn away from a historic opportunity.

The second question — whether the president has been overly deferential to Congress — is the most small-bore, a matter of tactics rather than strategy. But it is also the hardest to answer. The original rap on the new administration — that it let congressional leaders dictate a pork-stuffed stimulus package — was somewhat unfair. Even before Obama took office, his aides were more intensely involved in crafting the stimulus than the Pelosi-gone-wild scenario suggested, and the contents less problematic.

The fairer criticism is that a more directive Obama might have gotten health care done more quickly and with less political uproar. Here I think a clearer presidential bottom line could have averted some of the pushback from the left. The Obama team gambled that it could contain the liberal fervor for a public option; instead, it became a hard-to-control brush fire. Had the president made his position clear earlier — a public option would be helpful but not essential — he might have been able to tamp down the insistence on a public option, lessen the perceptions of an attempted government takeover of health care, and get to the final result more quickly. The same with taxing high-value insurance plans. Had the president been more insistent on that early in the process, when his political power was stronger, the end product might have been better.

The most fundamental question — who is the real Obama? — is the one I think has been most clearly answered. The Rush Limbaugh cartoon of Obama-as-socialist notwithstanding, Obama’s inclinations toward centrist pragmatism have outweighed his liberalism at almost every turn, from Afghanistan to education reform. The health care package — without the public option of liberals’ dreams and with a tax that labor hates — is one example of Obama as pragmatist. The war on terror is another, as Obama has infuriated liberals by opposing torture prosecutions, invoking the need for indefinite detention, resuming the use of military tribunals and asserting the state secrets privilege. Even where his policy preferences trend liberal — ending don’t ask, don’t tell, or passing the Employee Free Choice Act — Obama has subordinated them to political realities.

Having covered the inauspicious start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, I know that the first-quarter grades of first-term presidents are poor predictors. This administration’s performance has been far from perfect. But in the panic of the moment, the easy criticism is not necessarily correct, and the caricature is not an accurate portrait.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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