Barack Obama’s Soaring Pragmatism
So far Obama's just tossed nonideological drapery over the usual Democratic agenda.


Rich Lowry

Barack Obama’s inaugural prose has justly been panned. As Obama took the oath of office “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms,” recalled the country’s past of drinking “the bitter swill of civil war,” and urged the country to brave “the icy currents,” one wondered whether his presidency might founder on the treacherous shoals of overwrought clichés.

The poor writing was overwhelmed by Obama’s masterly delivery, the glorious spectacle of the flag-waving multitudes, and the overarching ambition of Obama’s address. In 2008, Democrats were faced with a choice to go “safe” with Hillary Clinton, a known quantity who promised to hold Democratic states and add just enough electoral votes for victory, or go “audacious” with Barack Obama. At this juncture, it’s hard to believe the choice was ever a close one.

Since the election, Obama has only strengthened his political position with a widely praised transition. He has appropriated the country’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in a historical body-snatching reminiscent of what Ronald Reagan did with Franklin Roosevelt. In his inaugural address, he grounded his vision in the Founding Fathers, sounded a significant conservative note in calling for a return to “old” and “true” values, and defined opposition to him as a stale remnant of bygone ideological debates.

Barack Obama imagines himself a colossus standing bestride the political world subsuming all the disagreements of the past 30 years in himself. William Herndon said of his friend Lincoln, “his ambition was the little engine that knew no rest.” Obama’s is the engine that knows no bounds.

Taking office amid economic turmoil in 1981, Reagan famously said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Obama’s rejoinder was that “the question is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He thus wipes away a defining dispute of recent American politics with a wave of the hand and a declarative sentence. Obama portrayed the debate over the size of government, the efficacy of the market, and how to protect the country as consisting of a series of false choices resolvable by a pragmatic commitment to pursuing what works.

This is a central contradiction of Obama’s speech: He praised “hard choices” in theory–as all politicians do–while presenting the actual choices that have bedeviled us for decades as a mirage. George W. Bush’s second inaugural speech had a whiff of utopianism in its confidence in the universal march of liberty. Obama’s utopianism is in positing that legitimate tensions between desirable things–American leadership and warm relations with allies, etc.–don’t exist.

There’s a presumption in Obama’s soaring pragmatism. Does he believe that he considered every major issue in our national life from a stance of pure ideological neutrality and the answers just happened to coincide with what the Senate Democratic caucus believes 96 percent of the time? One hopes not. Obama the pragmatist said he will end government programs that don’t work, but he has been in public office since 1997 and never notably crusaded against wasteful and inefficient government.

This raises the larger question: Does Obama mean his rhetoric? If he were to follow through on his inaugural oratory he’d run a “kadima” government, a centrist one holding as many frustrations for partisan Democrats as gratifications. If he doesn’t, he’ll simply toss nonideological drapery over the usual Democratic agenda.

So far, the evidence points to the latter. Obama’s reaction to the recession has been to propose an enormous spending bill that throws money at every typical Democratic priority. The research is decidedly mixed on whether this kind of fiscal stimulus works, and the Congressional Budget Office says that only $135 billion of the $355 billion in discretionary spending in the House stimulus bill would be spent by October 2010.

If this is Obama’s idea of an empiricism in public policy that will sweep all before it, watch for the currents to get icy and storm clouds to gather.


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