Archive for the ‘Democrats’ Category
Yes, as it turns out, the deal that Obama cut with the Republicans is not as bad as it could have been. They could have gotten away with the kitchen sink, that is, cuts in medicaid and social security without any tax increases for the wealthy. But instead the Republicans will be getting cuts that won’t really hit the economy until 2013, and medicaid and social security are safe from arbitrary cuts, for now. Perhaps we should be thankful, especially given the state of the economy.
But I don’t feel thankful. I feel like the American people got rolled. The Tea Party activists set the agenda and then engaged in blackmail. Cut now or else…and of course no increase in taxes on the wealthy. Yet without a revenue increase there isn’t a way to bring down the debt that won’t also bring down (almost all of) the American people. But most thoughtful Americans know that we can’t get out of this economic morass through some magic bullet on the reduction side. Most Americans wanted a deal that included budget cuts and revenue increases.
So what happened? Obama and Co. made a set of calculations: Better to give in now and (perhaps) fight another day when there isn’t a sword of Damocles hanging over the country. They assumed that the political costs could be contained. Independents will blame Congress more than the president. And upset Democrats will eventually fall in line. After all, where can they go in 2012? (As I write the House just voted to pass the “compromise” bill on the debt ceiling. Most Republicans voted for it. The Democrats split.) Last but not least, The White House welcomed not having to deal with a new economic crisis.
It all sounds so reasonable and politically expedient. But they may have miscalculated. Take me for instance. I have been a strong supporter of the president. I have viewed his deep (philosophical) pragmatism as a virtue. I never assumed that he was an old-fashioned liberal. I thought he had mildly progressive leanings but was quite capable of centrist or even center right positions. Given our time and place in American history, this was about as much as one could expect out of a Democratic Party nominee. I also liked that fact that he sought to play long ball. That he seemingly wasn’t looking for superficial or quick balms. And that he had the intelligence to play long ball.
But you can’t play long ball (in politics) unless you can move the ball. Or better still, unless you can convince your teammates and the fans that you can do so. What we have seen in this latest round is Obama drawing a line in the sand and then hopping over it when it looked like he might actually have to fight a serious battle. And it was a very important battle. The extortion that took place was not solely about getting the government to spend less. It was about setting an agenda. It was about how Americans understand who and what are responsible for the rut we are in, and who is responsible for helping to dig us out.
Corporations are sitting on mountains of cash. And as the chart above shows, the rich continue to do exceptionally well. Income and wealth disparities are becoming chasms. Yes, we have had fine words from the White House about this. But words are no substitute for actions, unless the words themselves are actions. Obama should have called the Republicans’ bluff. He should have said, ‘you want a default, go ahead and don’t compromise. Go ahead and insist on no new revenues from the wealthy. You will answer to the American people. You will even have to answer to Wall Street when the Market sinks or crashes. And you know what, you will have to answer to me.’ (He could have let them believe early on that he just might invoke the 14th Amendment if he got angry enough. Instead he gave this bargaining chip away.)
Obama should have come into office declaring a national state of emergency. He should have not promised to lower the unemployment rate with “traditional” measures. He should have emphasized that unemployment was actually much higher than the “official” figures, closer to 16%-20%. He should have used the fierce urgency of now to enact emergency measures. He should have done this when he was riding high.
Yes, I know. This is all history now. It’s water under the bridge. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking. Yet it is still relevant. If Obama doesn’t draw a tighter connection between what he he says and what he does, he may win reelection but his presidency will never be known for great things. He will be the president who helped us muddle through our declining place in the world, instead of the one who assisted us in confronting the economic and political realities of the 21st century.
This is a, “I told you so” blog. I have been arguing here and in other venues that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist and not just a political one. At his press conference yesterday, in which he defended his compromise with the Republicans over taxes, he directly confronted a question about his core values. He specifically placed his values in a wider framework, one that is clearly congenial to philosophical pragmatism.
Why is this important? We need to understand the man if we are going to be able to work effectively for change. Obama has a set of values that one might call “progressive” (and other values that might be termed “moderate” or even mildly conservative). He is going to act on his (mostly) progressive views within a broader framework, which is his commitment to philosophical pragmatism. This is not a sell out. It is not a weakness in itself. It is different from what we have seen in quite some time. (This is NOT merely Bill Clinton’s political pragmatism, for example.) Listen to how Obama defends his initiatives by citing the history of social security in the clip below. There is passion here. And not the passion of someone defending a merely expedient outcome. His commitment to pragmatism may often make him appear more conservative than he actually is. For him, it’s about getting the best outcomes over the long term. This is not to say that he hasn’t made tactical errors or errors in judgment and timing. He certainly has. It’s only to place his specific values in a broader context.
For those interested in learning more about the connection between Obama and pragmatism, there is James T. Kloppenberg’s new book, Reading Obama. The Afterword to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford) is on-line. It discusses Obama’s pragmatism. There is also the web site Barack Obama’s Pragmatism.
Wall Street……………………….Henry Adams
Yes, it is certainly easy to be a Monday morning quarterback once the game is over. But the game is far from over for the Democrats and Obama. Brown’s victory in Massachusetts—won in part because Obama supporters sat out the election or actually voted for Brown because they were upset about Obama not being progressive enough on health care—is indeed the proverbial wake-up call. Obama now knows that his administration is going to have to take a more political turn. What does this mean? Harnessing the populism that propelled Brown and Obama into office. Of course those who supported them aren’t all the same populists, but there is an overlap.
People feel ripped off and they should. They have been ripped off by Wall Street and now they are worried that the government will rip them off with new health care legislation. That the former is true, and the latter is not, makes little difference to current politics. What should have happened, and what now must happen, is that Obama must harness the outrage against Wall Street into outrage about how the insurance companies have ripped people off and will continue to do so unless stopped. This doesn’t require that Obama become a flaming radical. But it does require that he worry less about what the big bad banking system will do to us if we don’t cater to its wishes.
American capitalism will not go down the tubes if we make prudent decisions about what banks can and can not invest in. It’s now clear, once again, that commercial banks that take deposits should not become investment houses. This was the law of the land for more than sixty years until Republican Senator Gramm, and Republican Representatives Leach and Bliley, helped change things in 1999 with the the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. While there are of course numerous reasons for why stocks are not worth any more today than they were back in 1999, it does seem that GLB’s legislation has not helped to protect us from bad times. As a matter of fact, it undoubtedly was a major factor in the banking crisis.
No doubt Obama was worried that if he didn’t cater to the banks the American economy would recover more slowly. But the political risk, and the risk to our economy in the future, is simply too great now not to harness the populist sentiment in the country. And you know Americans have had a long distrust of bankers. Writing at the turn of the twentieth-century about his reaction to bankers in the 1860′s, Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents, said the following. (He speaks about himself in the third person.)
He [McCulloch] was a banker, and towards bankers Adams felt the narrow prejudice which the serf feels to his overseer; for he knew he must obey, and he knew that the helpless showed only their helplessness when they tempered obedience by mockery. The Education of Henry Adams, Chapter XVI
So enough jokes on late night TV and more teeth in actual measures to reign in the fat cats, especially since the Supreme Court has decided to make money the undeniable king of our future elections by unleashing corporate wealth to finance elections.
And Adams would have a warning for Obama as he proceeds.
The most troublesome task of a reform President was that of bringing the Senate back to decency. The Education of Henry Adams, Chapter XVII
I know. You can’t, won’t, don’t believe it. You just know that the Democrats are going to let an opportunity of the century slip through their collective fingers. Fear not. This time they have a secret weapon. The Republican Party.
Far be it from me to defend the two party system, but it does have its virtues. One of its virtues is that its vices–patronage, the seniority system, pork, and assorted perks, etc.–can actually work to help unify a party when the stakes are especially high. And the stakes are extremely high in the case of health care. The Republicans are unified against it. (Olympia Snowe is the outlier who proves the point.) The Democrats must unify against their unified adversaries to remain the dominant party. Self-interest, in all likelihood, will win the day this time around, although unity will require some intense horse trading between Democrats.
The unity of the Republicans is not accidental. It has two basic grounds: ideological and tactical. On the ideological front, as divided as Republicans are over how far to carry the culture wars, the party remains committed, more so than ever, to the notion that government is fundamentally a threat to individual freedom. Various wings of the party still define freedom in negative terms, that is, individuals should be allowed to satisfy their own preferences, primarily through the market, without government interference. It’s not the government’s place to help protect and nurture individual growth and development. This is a private matter. (There are, of course, exceptions, for example, prayer in classroom.) On the tactical front, the Republicans have little choice but to continue to appeal to an increasingly strident anti-government base, because they cannot afford to lose it. The vast majority of Republicans in Congress could not survive if the base were to desert them in even modest numbers. They must remain united for the foreseeable future as the anti-government party if they aren’t to disappear. And the best way to do this is to select causes or issues and rally around them.
Turning to health care: it’s clear to most Americans that the market is not working. It cannot satisfy individual preferences, or even when it does, there is a legitimate fear that it will not continue to do so. (Everyone has heard of someone who was denied coverage arbitrarily by a health insurance company.) Individual preferences simply cannot hold out against the power of the insurance industry. The industry has itself become a quasi-tyrannical government, deciding on who lives or dies, and it does so often based on its bottom line. There is a palpable sense of vulnerability in the land, and for most Americans it’s not being caused by the government.
Enter the Democrats. Since the 1930′s they have been more committed than Republicans to the notion that the government has a role to play in the self-development of individuals. Self-determination requires not only a society in which tyranny is absent (the right’s position), but one in which the government helps nurture the well-being and education of its citizens. And the government must at times defend citizens against corporate forces that the little guy simply cannot fight. The Democrats are positioned to be on the winning side of the health care debate.
“But wait,” you say, “this is not a matter of which party has the majority of Americans behind it. It’s a matter of lobbyists, and they have bought not only the Republicans but many Democrats. These Democrats will continue to cater to the health insurance industry.” Here is where the party system will come into play. There is a point at which the self-interest of members of the Democratic Party will shift from the bucks that they have gotten from the lobbyists to the necessity of preserving party unity. Why should this be true now when it hasn’t been in the past? The stakes are simply higher and things have moved along too far. For a Democrat to be responsible for the defeat of significant health care legislation at this stage would not only gravely injure the party, it would open the door to retribution from other party members in terms of patronage, pork, etc.
The Democrats who are indebted to the insurance industry will hold out as long as they can to cut the best deal they can for their clients. And there indeed are some Democrats who are ideologically closer to the Republicans and would prefer less government involvement. But unless they plan to change parties, at some point, push will come to shove. The Democrats will have to fall in line. They will have to unite. (For example, Democratic Senators would have to vote to support a Republican filibuster in the Senate in order to hold up health care reform. Politicians, however, don’t vote with the opposition party to support its filibusters. Could this happen with Lieberman? Yes. Likely? No, unless he decides to become a Republican.)
Will the reform be substantial? It will not satisfy those who want national health care insurance. Yet it will have to be substantial enough to start cutting costs, cover most of those who do not have insurance, and gut the power of the insurance companies to decide who has insurance. To fail at these basics would seriously undermine the Democrats with their most vocal supporters, and it would run the risk of creating turmoil in the Democratic Party as politicians have to explain a weak plan after all of the hype. There would be some serious finger pointing. And the unified Republicans would be waiting in the wings to gobble up pockets of isolated Democrats.
Of course, predictions are dangerous. However, if I were a betting man, I would bet on this one. And so is Obama, a man who has always understood the place of self-interest in “community organizing.”
The analysis in this piece draws on insights from J. David Greenstone’s The Lincoln Persuasion. Greenstone was a professor of political science at the University of Chicago during the time that David Axelrod was an undergraduate political science major. It seems that others in Obama’s circle were acquainted with Greenstone’s work, for example, Cass Sunstein.
Chicago lost a big one last week, the 2016 Olympics. This week, one of its sons won a Nobel Prize. Chicago has once again proven to be the city of big shoulders.
Some rejoiced last week when Chicago lost its bid, because it was seen as Obama’s failure. Many of the same folks are criticizing his recent “win.” The man can’t seem to please some people.
The criticisms, hours after the announcement, are already taking shape: He didn’t deserve it. It’s too early in his tenure as president. It just goes to show that he is more concerned about the world than troubles at home, etc.
Let’s clear up a few misconceptions. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded for various reasons. There isn’t a single criterion. Some individuals have won for helping to end a war (Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger), for humanitarian work and conflict resolution done over the years (Jimmy Carter), for seeking to improve international relations by supporting an international organization (Woodrow Wilson). It can also be given to the individual who has done the most in the past year to bring about world peace. The latter is the reason cited by the chair of the Nobel Committee, and former prime minister of Norway, Thorbjorn Jagland, for honoring Obama. The New York Times reports:
“The question we have to ask is who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world,” Mr. Jagland said. “And who has done more than Barack Obama?”
He compared the selection of Mr. Obama with the award in 1971 to the then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt for his “Ostpolitik” policy of reconciliation with communist eastern Europe.
“Brandt hadn’t achieved much when he got the prize, but a process had started that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Jagland said. “We have to get the world on the right track again,” he said. Without referring specifically to the Bush era, he continued: “Look at the level of confrontation we had just a few years ago. Now we get a man who is not only willing but probably able to open dialogue and strengthen international institutions.”
But wouldn’t you know it. Instead of experiencing some pride in the fact that a sitting American president has won the Nobel Peace Prize, which certainly sends a positive message to the world, like the conservatives who rejoiced at Chicago losing the Olympics, Republicans can’t wait to criticize the man for winning a prize he wasn’t even seeking. Listen to Michael Steel, chairman of the Republican Party. (From The New York Times , Oct. 9, 2009)
“The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’ It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights,” Mr. Steele said in a statement. “One thing is certain — President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.”
This is cheap and mean spirited. Its concern with scoring domestic political points is on a par with those who thought embarrassing Obama over the Olympics was worth more than the benefits of an Olympics to Chicago and America.
Obama won the prize in part because he is a genuine cosmopolitan, in the best sense of the term. His politics look to the world stage and America’s place on it, not behind or above it. But it appears that many Americans simply don’t realize the extent to which his words during the election and his approach to international relations–one which emphasizes the idea of respect–have transformed perceptions of America. (Perhaps America might really be interested in decreasing violence around the world, in decreasing nuclear weapons, etc.)
Leading America, the most powerful nation on Earth, out of the moral and political myopia of the last eight years is surely worth a Nobel Prize. In this regard, who has done more for world peace this past year than Barack Obama?
Nice to know that the new senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, has his priorities right.
Poor Newt Gingrich–the de facto leader, along with Sarah Palin, of the right wing of the Republican Party–can’t seem to chew gum and walk at the same time. How do I know this? Well, he seems to find it impossible to be a loyal citizen of the United States while at the same time recognizing that he is a also member of a wider human community.
Newt appears to be very confused about the idea of world citizenship. The New York Times reports the following,
Newt Gingrich might not be “a citizen of the world,” as he proudly proclaimed at the G.O.P.’s annual fundraising dinner, going so far as to offer a reverse shout-out to all of the countries he distinctly wouldn’t want to be a citizen of —“North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba or Russia.” June 8, 209, “In Palin’s Shadow, Republicans Collect Cash”
The idea of being a world citizen is an old one, going back at least to the stoics of Ancient Greece and Rome. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome, and a defender of the Roman Empire, didn’t appear to have any problem asserting that one could be both a loyal citizen of a country and a citizen of the world.
“My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” The Meditations, Book Six, 44.
Newt has a reputation for being one of the intellectuals of the Republican right. I hope that this proves false for the sake of conservatism in American, for it appears that Newt believes that being a citizen of the world requires him to be a citizen of specific countries, for example, North Korea and Zimbabwe, in addition to the United States. It’s hard to imagine how anyone with a Ph.D., and Newt has one, least of all a historian, could be so confused about an idea that has been central to Western (and world) civilization for at least two thousand years. The idea is not that one should be willing to trade one’s nationality for another, but that one should seek to look beyond the borders of one’s nation to a common humanity. (Was this not Christ’s message?) We are citizens of nations, but as human beings we share a common humanity.
And it appears that Ronald Reagan had little difficulty understanding and asserting this claim. He opened a speech to the UN on June 17, 1982, with the following words:
“I speak today as both a citizen of the United States and of the world. I come with the heartfelt wishes of my people for peace, bearing honest proposals and looking for genuine progress.” The American Presidency Project
Gingrich fallaciously paints everything in black and white terms, either it is this or that, and asserts with absolute certainty that it is one or the other, citizen of the U.S. or of the world. This is just the kind of ideological mind-set that has proved so devastating in Washington and in the country in the last few decades. It surfaced in the way in which Gingrich railed against Sotomayor and targeted Obama on the issue of empathy.
“Look, the whole concept that President Obama has talked about — that he worries about empathy. We don’t have the rule of empathy. We have the rule of law.” Media Matters
But as Media Matters points out, Gingrich’s claim is misleading, to say the least. Obama never suggested replacing law with empathy. He spoke of his desire to appoint a judge who is empathetic and dedicated to the rule of law.
During the June 4 edition of Fox News’ Hannity, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich forwarded the false conservative talking point that President Obama said he would seek a justice who shows “empathy” rather than a commitment to follow the law. But Obama actually said his nominee will do both. Gingrich claimed, “Look, the whole concept that President Obama has talked about — that he worries about empathy. We don’t have the rule of empathy. We have the rule of law.” In fact, in Obama’s May 1 statement to which conservatives have repeatedly pointed, immediately after saying, “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes,” Obama said he “will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role.”
There is a connection between Gingrich’s attack on the idea of world citizenship and his attack on empathy that extends beyond his fallacious bifurcations. One reason that we can be world citizens is because we are capable of being empathetic toward those who may not be members of our own tribe or nation. Empathy should be understood in two ways. First, there is the sense in which one is empathetic if one can stand in the other guy’s shoes, that is, see the world from alternative perspectives. Obama often speaks about this “skill.” Second, empathy can be understood as synonym for compassion. The ability to stand in the other guy’s shoes doesn’t necessarily lead to compassion, but it does lead to a better understanding of where he or she is coming from. Our capacity to empathize in both senses of the term is an important factor in our ability to be world citizens. Gingrich doesn’t want this capacity to be a feature of our judges and, I suggest, he doesn’t want it to be a feature of the way in which we approach other peoples. If we approach other peoples with empathy, we enter the dangerous territory of world citizenship, which detracts from being an American. Empathy tears down “natural” boundaries that Newt would prefer to leave intact, and it will turn us into bleeding heart liberals who care more about other folks than members of our own nation. What nonsense. When seen in this light, Gingrich’s comments on world citizenship are not merely provincial. They are xenophobic. He is waiving the flag in a way that is dangerously close to nationalisms that plagued the twentieth century and gave us two world wars.
If I am wrong about the connection between Gingrich’s distrust of empathy in the courtroom and his anti-cosmopolitanism, then I believe it is Gingrich who must set the record straight. His words thus far make this a more than reasonable inference.
[See "Update" from February 15th below.]
Quickly, which of these pictures doesn’t belong with the others? If you selected #3, the Guggenheim Museum, consider yourself smarter than most members of Congress. Seems that Congress can’t tell the difference between a casino, a golf course, and a museum.
The Senate pulled the plug on 50 million dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts that was originally in the stimulus bill, a pittance really, given the size of the stimulus package. But it then added insult to injury by attaching an amendment prohibiting the use of stimulus funds for, “any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway-beautification project.” And even Senator Schumer signed off on this one. (He claimed that it was an error. Hmmm. This is the guy who recently brought us “Annie Oakley” Gillibrand as the junior Senator from NY. ) New York Magazine, 2/12/09.
It appears that Congress, unlike the president, is willing to accept the notion that the arts are just another form of recreation or entertainment. The arts do entertain, and good entertainment is to be prized, but this is not all that they do. The Germans have a term for what that arts can help accomplish: Bildung. The word is not easily translated, and there has been much debate about how it should be understood. But what can be said here (this is a blog, after all, not a treatise) is that Bildung suggests (personal or social) growth through education, experience, and creative endeavors. Golf, for example, for all of its virtues as a sport, or casinos, for all of their character producing vices, will not generate Bildung. But spending time with (great) works of art may, if one is open to them. To put the matter succinctly, art is an individual and social good; it is educational in ways that casinos and golf courses are not.
I support the stimulus package. (As a matter of fact, I would argue that it’s too small.) I understand that there was a need to get the stimulus package through asap. I understand that the Republicans remain caught in a time warp. With tax cuts as their only mantra and the market still a god, they deserve John Boehner’s bombasts and Eric Cantor’s cant. But come on, did no Democrats read this amendment? First, the Democrats should have defended the money for the arts because of the unique role that they play in society. (Let’s not, for example, forget the role of artists in the WPA during the great depression.) Second, in practical terms, there is billions in this bill for people in all sorts of industries, but not a penny for artists, who also need jobs, and the non-profits that help support so many of them. Let us also not forget that the performing arts are economic engines in many communities, and yet we invest relatively little in them as a society. We expect them to live off private charity or outrageously priced tickets. The result: too many poor and middle class folks are cut off from the performing arts. (Are you listening Schumer?)
And yes, the package is also unfair to those who work in zoos and aquariums, typically non-profits, whose budgets surely will be cut in these hard times. While it’s not clear that zoos generate Bildung, although they might, they are certainly educational and serve the common good. (And they too employ people.) Obviously Congress can’t tell the difference between this, a non-profit educational institution,
Qualcomm Stadium (The name says it all)
UPDATE, February 15, 2009. “Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force.” The New York Times reports that the 50 million for the arts was salvaged in the final bill. In addition, the offending language comparing museums to casinos was removed. Democrats, all is forgiven. Republicans, you are still in the dog house. Here is an excerpt from the Times column.
As the details of the final bill were being hammered out, tens of thousands of arts advocates around the country were calling and e-mailing legislators. Arts groups also organized an advertising blitz arguing that culture contributes 6 million jobs and $30 billion in tax revenue and $166 billion in annual economic impact.
The tide turned. In addition to preserving the $50 million allocation, the final bill eliminated part of the Senate amendment that would have excluded museums, theaters and arts centers from any recovery money.
“It’s a huge victory for the arts in America,” said Robert L. Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts, a lobbying group. “It’s a signal that maybe there is after all more understanding of the value of creativity in the 21st-century economy.”
That Senate amendment, proposed by Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, had grouped museums, theaters and arts centers with implied frivolities like casinos and golf courses.
Here are several labels that have recently and often been applied to Obama: pragmatist, bipartisan, compromiser, and centrist. The Republicans take no prisoners strategy regarding the stimulus package–which has been driven not by concerns about pork, but by an ideology that still affirms that the market always knows best–has depended on using Obama’s bipartisanship to their advantage. They typically view him as someone whose pragmatism guarantees a willingness to compromise and operate in a bipartisan fashion. And yes, it’s true, Obama would prefer bipartisan solutions. But be not confused, Republican comrades, pragmatism and bipartisanship are not two sides of the same coin.
Obama, as I have argued elsewhere, is not only a political pragmatist, but a philosophical one. Two points here: 1) Philosophical pragmatists are not dogmatists; they are falibilists who are suspicious of those who claim to possess certainty in political and ethical matters. 2) Broadly speaking, pragmatists seek what works.
Much confusion is possible regarding these points. One might think that if someone doesn’t believe in certainty and also looks to what works, he isn’t deeply committed to any values. This is specious inference. Pragmatists can be deeply committed to any number of values. They just don’t think that they have a direct line to the Deity regarding the truth of these values.
So, then, how does this relate to the Republicans’ misreading of Obama? Republicans have been assuming that Obama’s desire for bipartisanship and compromise is at the heart of his pragmatism. If they push hard enough, his pragmatism (read: desire to get things done “only” through compromise) will win the day for them. They will be able to hold back the tide of reform.
But bipartisanship and compromise are strategies and goods, not absolute goods for the philosophical pragmatist. The pragmatist respects them because they speak to his or her commitment to fallibilism and community, and because they might help us get the job done. However, if they are failing as strategies to achieve pressing ends, a philosophical pragmatist will not hesitate to engage in triage. If people don’t have jobs and are without medical care, if the economy is in a death spiral, well, we have an obligation to address these problems. Be nice to do so through having everyone on board, but we can always return to pursuing bipartisanship another day. It’s a good, not The Absolute Good.
If bipartisanship is not working as a strategy to get the stimulus package through, which Obama deeply believes is necessary for the well-being of the country, his political and philosophical commitments, and temperament, will move him to turn his energies to figuring out what will work. And what will work here may turn out to be an offensive against recalcitrant Republicans whose failed policies cost them two elections, 2006 and 2008. And you know what, he’s got the upper hand if he makes this move. (Republicans might think that Obama wouldn’t dare because he will need them down the line. However, if they aren’t playing ball now, he can’t be sure they will do so down the line.)
A piece of advice to Republicans: Don’t push this guy too hard. You are dealing with a mindset that you haven’t seen in a couple of generations. You will end up regretting it. (He’s perfectly capable of wearing the black hat.)
(Image from The Boston Phoenix)
UPDATE, February 9th, 2009, PM. The following is an excerpt from The New York Times of Obama’s first press conference as president:
So my whole goal over the next four years is to make sure that whatever arguments are persuasive and backed up by evidence and facts and proof, that they can work, that we are pulling people together around that kind of pragmatic agenda. And I think that there was an opportunity to do this with this recovery package because, as I said, although there are some politicians who are arguing that we don’t need a stimulus, there are very few economists who are making that argument. I mean, you’ve got economists who were advising John McCain, economists who were advisers to George Bush — one and two — all suggesting that we actually needed a serious recovery package.
And so when I hear people just saying we don’t need to do anything; this is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill, without acknowledging that by definition part of any stimulus package would include spending — that’s the point — then what I get a sense of is that there is some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up. [emphasis added]
UPDATE, February 10, 2009 Peter Baker in the New York Times writes (excerpt):
Taking on Critics, Obama Puts Aside Talk of Unity
“It is not too late to craft a bipartisan plan that creates more jobs and helps get our economy back on track, and Republicans stand ready to work with the president to do this,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said after the news conference.
For his part, though, Mr. Obama seemed to suggest it was too late, and that the time for bipartisanship lay further down the road. He said he recognized that some Republicans had good-faith doubts about his program, but he also characterized some of the opposition as an effort to “test” the new president.
(Baker’s article, which includes discussion of the press conference, is worth a read. It’s clear that Obama’s pragmatism does not require him to stick to “bipartisanship” and that the Republicans are about to find out that they have overplayed their hand. Poor Boehner, the Republicans’ goose egg vote in the House, of which he was so proud, is coming back to haunt him.)
UPDATE, February 14, 2009, excerpt from UPI.com:
WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (UPI) — U.S. President Barack Obama plans to travel and campaign more to pressure Republicans in
Now that a mammoth, $787 billion economic stimulus bill has been approved virtually without Republican support, White House advisers have determined that Capitol Hill horse-trading with GOP opponents wasn’t successful and that Obama should instead tap his immense popularity and public salesmanship skills to push legislation in the future, the Washington publication Politico reported Saturday.
The GOP, seeing that it is in a Death Spiral, has announced a new slogan to help revivify the Party.
The GOP: A Party that won’t be compromised by compromise!
Representative John Boehner, House Minority Leader, made the announcement early this morning on “Morning Joe.” In making the announcement Boehner specifically mentioned how his Party must continue to respect their icons: Goldwater, Reagan, Bush and Bush. He then added something that left Joe and his guests mystified. Boehner said that he would be damned, “if John Dewey and his liberal pragmatist friends are going to put lady liberty behind bars.”*
*Okay, Boehner didn’t say this on “Morning Joe.” But he might have if he had read Dewey….