The Limits of Obama’s Pragmatism

| 5/19/2009 11:47:51 AM

Obama, PragmatistSince the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama has been hailed as a pragmatist. As a candidate, he embraced off-shore oil drilling and clean coal and he spoke out in favor of gun rights. As President, his economic policies and his decision to block the release of prisoner abuse photos have similarly been touted as “pragmatic.”

“Being a pragmatist is a statement about means, not ends,” Robert Reich writes for Talking Points Memo. Pragmatism is not a virtue, in and of itself; virtue lies in the goals achieved through pragmatism. According to Reich, “to call his stance ‘pragmatic’ is to rob it of its moral authority.”

In comparison to the last eight years, Obama’s lack of ideology feels to many like a breath of air for a nation under water. The Bush administration convinced many Americans, and especially Democrats, “that there is a correlation between idealism and incompetence.I have no quarrel with efficacy, but it is a contentless ideal,” The United States needs to be represented in the world by more than best practices.”

A solution to President Obama’s search for a non-dogmatic philosophy may lie in the actions of candidate Obama. As a candidate, Obama was able to explain controversies to the public in measured and intelligent terms. In his speech on race, Reich writes, “He took America to a higher place by explaining what we all knew and felt but giving it a larger and nobler frame. He educated us in the best sense of the word.”

President Obama has the chance to embrace the educational possibilities of the current crisis. He needs to “find a way to bring the public in, to let it feel a sense of participation and ownership,” Mark Schmitt writes for the American Prospect. Rather than evoking the state secrets privilege, or divorcing economic policies from the public at large, Obama should embrace the transparency he campaigned on. He can educate the American people on widening inequality at home and the dangers of foreign threats abroad. According to Schmitt, “Ideology, in a measured dosage, can help people understand where we're headed and why.”

To do so would both make good on his promises of transparency and strengthen his policies. Call it pragmatic ideology.

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