The Corner

Obama: The Pragmatist

Oh, man, this is awesome.  As someone deeply, deeply, interested in the ties between philosophical pragmatism and liberalism, I think I’m going to have to read James T. Kloppenberg’s book. But the write-up in the Times of his lecture (and the book excerpt) at CUNY is at times something of a parody, as the folks at Contentions have already noted. First of all, we are told that Obama belongs in that rare pantheon of “philosopher presidents,” a “rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history. There’s John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and in the 20th century just Woodrow Wilson.”

There’s much to chuckle at. But I like the simplicity of this:

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Ah, yes. Barack Obama has been so supple-minded, so open to “continuing debate,” so skeptical of certainty, and so humble.

I just wonder where that Barack Obama has been for the last 20-odd months, because the guy in the Oval Office has been talking endlessly about how the “time for debate is over,” how he doesn’t want to hear from his opponents, whom he now calls “our enemies,” how he got all of his policies right, how any statement of disagreement is merely a “talking point,” or perhaps the irritable mental gesture of Americans who are so frightened they cling to their boomsticks and sky god, or simply reject “facts and science.”

Heck, you might think that someone who ran on cap-and-trade and nationalized health care before the financial crisis might have changed his agenda after the financial crisis. You know, because that’s what philosopher-president pragmatists do when circumstances change, they “update their ideas.” Instead the guy we have the in the White House insisted that he didn’t need to change a single item on his list of priorities even after reality changed so dramatically. Indeed, he spent his first year pushing for health-care reform instead of dealing with the crisis at hand. Why? Because crises are a terrible thing to waste of course. That’s one thing these “pragmatists” have been certain about from the beginning.

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