Barack Obama’s Political Philosophy

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By Marc Seltzer; originally published on December 15, 2008.

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A new political party has appeared on the American scene. It is the Pragmatic Party and Barack Obama is its leader. The platform is so new and disconcerting that many have not yet wrapped their minds around the implications.

What his critics fail to understand is that Obama is not just about be-nice politics.  He’s about practical solutions rather than simplistic party ideologies.

After two years in the national spotlight as a transformational candidate – captivating audiences, filling stadiums and talking straight about his priorities (the middle class, economics, health care, education) people are still asking if he has been clear and upfront with his politics.

One month into the transition, carrying references to Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan, people are showing surprise with his cabinet picks.  In despair, some suspect a closet conservative, while others are hoping for a liberal double agent.

Some Republicans are calling him a socialist, while Fred Barns in the Weekly Standard observes “he’s pragmatic so far in one direction, rightward – who knew?”

The public went along with the old-style reporting it seems. 68 percent of Americans polled expected Mr. Obama to be liberal. They have their reasons. Mr. Obama ran as a Democrat, after all. In our essentially two-party system, if Obama had run on a new third-party platform, he might have received 4 or 5 percent of the vote, or because he sounds remarkably intelligent, 12 percent tops. Obama ran instead as a Democrat, a pragmatic choice it seems, since he won 53 percent.

It’s also true that minority candidates are often champions of more progressive political parties and organizations, which traditionally labored to advance rights and protections for disenfranchised groups. True, but Colin Powell and Condoliza Rice, not to mention Clarence Thomas, were all Republican administration appointments.

Jessie Jackson ran for President in 1984 and 1988 on a rainbow coalition for a new kind of inclusiveness. He may have paved the way in part for the Obama presidential bid, but in sharp contrast, Barack Obama, ran on behalf of the middle class.

On the other hand, the University of Chicago, where Obama taught Constitutional Law, is a center of free-market economics.  Note too, that Obama’s selections for his cabinet and crew in economics and foreign affairs are centrists.  Centrists can adopt policies from, and forge policies which appeal to, both sides of the political spectrum, without being called traitors.

There is still no approved vocabulary for describing pragmatism in politics.  What’s that Berkeley’s Professor Lakoff said, until there’s a metaphor, there’s no word and no thought?

It’s about time that someone described this new party to the pundits so that they can start using its lingo in their coverage. Not that the President Elect has been hiding anything. He has said on more than one occasion, that he is looking for “what works,” or, when things look really bad, “whatever works.”  Let’s start describing policy, not for its political effect, but its accomplishment on the merits.  The words “results oriented” and “consequences” come to mind.

“Pragmatic,” in this context, is the opposite of ideological. Democrats and Republicans aren’t always ideological, but often are, with important consequences.  The mantra “Government regulation is a drag on the economy” rings a bell.  The notion of raising taxes to balance the budget during a recession is not quite ideology, but it is cured by pragmatism, none-the-less.  Pragmatism works against ideology and lunacy, it seems — an added benefit.

What should we expect from the Pragmatic party? It’s hard to say, but we should expect an Obama administration to look to the facts and circumstances of the problems we face, rather than applying ready-made doctrines from yesteryear. Obama doesn’t seem to care whether a policy is liberal or conservative; he seems to believe it is more important to talk about whether it will accomplish its goals. It turns out that many of the liberal v. conservative debates have already been, well, decided.

Take, for example, raising taxes.  This is done to balance budgets, but also to fund entitlements and spending programs.  Obama’s appointment to head the Economic Council of Advisors, Christina Romer, recently published a serious historical analysis showing that tax hikes measurably retard economic growth.  A pragmatist will have to weigh how much the revenue is needed in the short term against the eventual harm to the economy and resulting loss of revenue over the long term.  Not very exciting in a televised debate, but logical, maybe even “good government.”

Better let the economists calculate the optimal results, rather than have politicians debate raising taxes vs. lowering taxes, without really knowing what they are talking about. Politicians with ideology don’t actually have to know what they are talking about, but pragmatists do for they are only as good as the results obtained by solutions they propose.

5 responses to “Barack Obama’s Political Philosophy

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