President Obama, for instance, is deeply, profoundly, habitually committed to the notion that he’s a pragmatist boldly standing athwart ideology. He’s interested in results, not mere labels. “My interest is finding something that works,” he told 60 Minutes at the beginning of his administration. “And whether it’s coming from FDR or it’s coming from Ronald Reagan, if the idea is right for the times then we’re gonna [sic] apply it. And things that don’t work, we’re gonna get rid of.” One finds in The Audacity of Hope numerous assaults on the evils of ideology—indeed “any tyrannical consistency”—that drives people away from the humility of pragmatism. And, of course, here he is in his inaugural address:
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.
This is Obama’s standard refrain, and his biggest defenders routinely repeat it back, almost as if they think it’s actually true. During the intense debt-ceiling negotiations in July and August 2011, Obama would claim incessantly that Republicans were “constantly being locked into ideologically rigid positions,” while he was a compromiser and a pragmatist. This dichotomy of ideology versus pragmatism in which he casts himself as the disciple of cool reason and common sense and his opponents as blinkered ideologues is a fiction. It is part lie he tells us and part lie he tells himself.
Saying he only cares about “what works” at this point in his presidency is more of a problem given that his signature achievement, you know, doesn’t.