Ideology Over Pragmatism: Why Doing What Works Is A Bad Idea, Apparently

by Tommy Brown

Here’s an excerpt from a mind-boggling article on Obama by Newsweek International’s Jacob Weisberg:

In 2009, looking out over the largest crowd ever assembled in Washington, D.C., Barack Obama framed the issue in terms of simple efficacy. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified,” he said. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

This view is in keeping with Obama’s non-ideological approach to politics. To most of those listening, it came across as an expression of our new president’s unsentimental good sense. Yet on rereading the speech in the less euphoric light of the next day, that passage seemed insufficient as a governing philosophy. “Whatever works” is less a vision of the public sector’s proper role than a placeholder for someone who has yet to figure out what he thinks that role should be.

This is the kind of thing that makes that vein in my right temple throb to the point that I worry about stroking out. After eight years of the chattering class bitching about a completely pragmatism-free ideological administration, where the modus operandi was to reach the conclusion first and then work back to make it happen (or make it seem to happen), this character is worried that Obama is not ideological enough. Just unbelievable.

Politics is the art of the possible; compromise is the only way a two-party system works. You accomplish what you can through negotiation and hopefully implement incremental change that moves towards what you’re trying to accomplish. The President is still a liberal after all. After just having an attempt made to radically re-align American policies and values and turn a socialist Middle Eastern country into a free-market paradise, with disastrous results, how can it be wrong to try to figure out a pragmatic, non-ideological way to get things working again? Isn’t solving this crisis more important that some Grand Vision of how America ought to be remade?

Obama’s pragmatic liberalism risks blurring execution with intention, means with ends. To take his illustrations, it is either up to the commonweal to provide a minimum income to retired people, to offer health insurance to everybody and to increase income equality—or it isn’t. Most liberals would say these are legitimate responsibilities of government. Most conservatives would argue they aren’t. On income security for the elderly, we’ve had a social consensus since the New Deal. On health care, a consensus may be emerging after decades of national ambivalence. When it comes to growing income inequality, a newer problem, there is no consensus. But Obama must decide what government’s goals are before considering the subordinate questions of what works and how much we can afford.

Now let me understand this: Wanting to identify problems and fix them “confuses. . . .means with ends?”  Political parties not agreeing on everything means you have to run your government like our former president? Sounds to Yours Truly that the end is to get the economy back and foreign policy back on a more productive track after almost a decade of unmitigated calamity; a defined, short term political goal that has a decent chance of being accomplished. But it seems like people would rather Obama had taken the podium on Inauguration Day and proposed the second coming of the Great Society, while the country crumbles around us.

This is part of a much larger sickness that has infected American politics since Jimmy Carter, where a politician’s “character” and “what he believes in” (read: ideological purity) are more important than doing crazy things, like trying to solve problems without marginalizing the opposition and provide constituent services to your people. What the hell ever happened to politicians getting elected on a platform of enacting what their constituents (all of them) want and leaving the grand political theories at home? You know, real governance?

What people don’t realize is that Obama’s years as a community organizer affect his management style. This is not the Republican corporate model, where the President gives orders and his minions carry them out at all costs. Organizers build consensus among disparate groups, so even when the other parties don’t get what they want, they feel included in the process. In other words, actual leadership instead of the fifty percent plus one nonsense of the last three decades. Plus, as ruthless as Obama is, it is Machiavelli 101 that former enemies make better allies than friends, because they have something to prove and are grateful for the chance.

And for this, the howling wolves of the Right and Left want to tear him apart?

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