Archive for the ‘Presidency’ Category
Here is what I would like to see. The universe needs to move along two different timelines after election day 2012. In one universe Romney wins; in another Obama. Those who voted for Romney must live in the timeline in which he won. Likewise for the Obama supporters. Let’s also assume that after four years each universe has a window into the other.
Here is my bet. Those in the Romney universe who are not wealthy, who are middle class, women, minorities, students, working people, etc., will curse the day that they voted for Mitt. They will discover that he deceived them. That his five point plan went nowhere. That it wasn’t really a plan. The government will be locked in battles as Romney tries to placate his extreme right-wing. Insurance companies will not have to cover those with pre-existing conditions. Students will have less options to pay for college. The wealthy will be doing better than ever and middle class folks will be stuck just where they are (or worse). The next generation will not be able to count on Medicare and Medicaid as they do today.
How can this be? Mitt’s a businessman, a financier. He will know how to fix the economy. Get things moving again. But there is no evidence that business skills translate into being a good president, especially in terms of the economy. Knowing how to make money in the private sector is simply not the same thing as governing. For what it’s worth, let’s look at the record here. We have had three presidents who were businessmen in the last 60 years: Jimmy Carter, George Bush I, and George Bush II. Carter was a peanut farmer. Bush I was in oil, and he also served in the government. Bush II was a businessman with the same degree from the same school as Romney. Each of these presidents had significant problems with the economy, and Bush II was a dramatic failure. (As a matter of fact, try to name one truly successful president who was a businessman. Perhaps Truman. But I don’t know if running a haberdashery for a short time counts. And farmers and landowners in the 19th century are just not what we think of today as businessmen.)
And what did Mitt’s business experience do for the people of Massachusetts? Oh, he would have you believe he helped create a marvelous economy in the state. But here is actually what happened.
“Unlike Obama, Romney took office during an economic uptick. Massachusetts had a net job growth of 1.4 percent under Romney. However, that was far slower growth than the national average of 5.3%. As Romney’s opponents have frequently, and correctly, noted, Massachusetts ranked 47th in job growth over the entirety of Romney’s term. The only states that did worse: Louisiana, Michigan and Ohio.” [Fact Check, USA Today, 1/5/12]
And what will the Obama universe look like? In the Obama timeline Medicare, Medicaid, and student loans will all be protected. Insurance companies will cover pre-existing conditions and thirty million more Americans will have coverage. Baring a world financial meltdown, the economy will continue to improve and the wealthy will pay a fairer share of the nation’s taxes. The debt will gradually decrease as a proportion of GNP as the economy turns around and reasonable cost cutting measures are put in place. We have seen this universe. It’s the one we are beginning to live in.
What Mitt is really good at doing is selling himself, and he certainly will change his positions in order to do so. But before you vote for this man for any season, try playing the parallel universe game.
[Thanks to a commentator on a newspaper article who suggested that country should split based on which states went which way in the election, that is, people should be forced to live under the president their state voted for. Not exactly my idea here, but close. Sorry that I don't recall where I saw the comment. I read a lot of them.]
One of the recurring themes of pieces on Obama at UP@NIGHT is the nature of his pragmatism, which is as much philosophical as it is purely political. With three months or so to go before the election, I thought I would collect here several links to discussions of Obama’s political thought and politics from the past few years at UP@NIGHT.
The entries most relevant to philosophical pragmatism are listed first. There are a couple of critical pieces further down the list. But I think it important that we understand with whom we are dealing as we criticize Obama or his administration. We should not fault him for seeking the possible when the more desirable was out of reach.
And for those who may still not have had enough, there is a discussion of Obama’s pragmatism and cosmopolitanism in an online (read, free) “Afterword” to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford University Press).
Okay, I thought that I was done thinking about Bush. Just two more days to go and he will be deep in the heart of Texas, reading all those “Drive Friendly” signs posted along the highways and byways of the Lone Star State. (A message that his foreign policy should have heeded more often.)
Unfortunately, it seems that this guy can’t leave us with any good news. His presidency has helped confirm that a large segment of the American populace is either deeply illiterate about American history or perhaps just plain bonkers (or both). I don’t know which hypothesis I prefer. A recent Pew poll tells us the following:
Here is what I want to know. Everyone is talking about how extraordinarily high Bush’s unfavorable ratings are as he leaves office, perhaps the highest ever, around 70% in some polls. And yet, more than one in ten Americans think that Bush was an above average or an outstanding president. And another 28% thinks that he was average. We can leave it to future historians to tell us whether he has been the worst president. (He might not have beaten out James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, or Warren G. Harding. Then again, he might have.) A survey of present-day historians tell us that he is going be at the bottom of the heap. (Yes, all of these historians could be deluded. Odds are they aren’t. And if George was even an average president, I tremble for the future of The Republic.)
I know, this might seem a small matter. However, I worry about stuff like this. 39% of Americans think that Bush was an average or above average president. Can there be any better argument for increasing the funds for the study of history and politics in our schools? We saw how much damage ignorance led to in the Oval Office, but no doubt it has repercussions in the hinterlands. Remember, we, the American people, elected George for a second term.
There is, however, some good news in all of this. Two of the worst presidents ever, Pierce and Buchanan, preceded Lincoln. Maybe we will get lucky. You know, it’s always darkest before the dawn. (And, hey, Obama doesn’t have to be a Lincoln to succeed. Just a truly above average president.)
P.S. A personal note: as a former Houstonian, and as someone married to a former Houstonian, I was very pleased to learn that when George heads back to Texas he will be splitting his time between Crawford and Dallas. Perhaps the Cowboys will make him an honorary dude.
Here is a prediction: the culture wars will be left by the wayside as we enter a seemingly new land, the land of the tactically minded chief executive, whose tactics are the tip of a philosophical iceberg. The executive is Obama and the iceberg is Pragmatism.
Comments regarding Obama’s pragmatism constitute something of a cottage industry. These discussions usually involve contrasting Obama’s pragmatism, for example, in choosing his cabinet, with the ideological approach of Bush and the neo-cons. Here the term pragmatism is meant to denote political flexibility, comfort with the expedient, and a willingness to compromise. For critics it is meant to suggest an unprincipled orientation toward questions of great moment. Given Obama’s willingness to label himself a pragmatist, many have been mystified by his commitment to specific values, finding him not only unclassifiable in accepted political categories, but mystifying as a person. For example, in a recent article in Harpers, “The American Void,” Simon Critchley treats Obama as, well, a void. He just can’t figure the guy out. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere (PBS site), there is nothing strange about Obama’s political views for those who are familiar with the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism or the Social Gospel Movement. Interestingly, Critchley makes much of Obama’s mother being an anthropologist, but what he fails to mention is that Ann Dunham’s thesis director was Alice G. Dewey, John Dewey’s granddaughter. (John Dewey was perhaps the most famous Pragmatist of the twentieth century.) This is no accident. Obama’s thought and practice can be located in the tradition of American Pragmatism (pragmatism with a capital P) and in the liberal Social Gospel Movement that was influential in Chicago during the early part of the 20th century. The latter is still influential in some Chicago churches and community groups, especially those that would have most engaged Obama’s attention as a community organizer.
One of the few commentators who has begun to tease out the differences between Obama’s pragmatisms is Chris Hayes. He writes in The Nation, “Pragmatism in common usage may mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it’s also the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. What unites the two senses of the word is a shared skepticism toward certainties derived from abstractions–one that is welcome and bracing after eight years of a failed, faith-based presidency. . . . And if there’s a silver thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins in this school of thought. Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey….For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of ‘variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation.’ ” The Nation, Dec 10, 2008
Hayes is moving in the right direction. I would take his claims a step further. There is no understanding of Obama without an understanding of Pragmatism. Take for instance the question of whether one can have principles and still be a pragmatist. From the vantage point of philosophical Pragmatism, the question is non-starter. The use of principles to address philosophical and political issues extends back to Plato and Aristotle, and migrates through Kant’s deontological ethics into the twentieth century. But the Pragmatist wants to bypass this mode of thinking, one that requires us to believe that affirming values requires a principled affirmation of values. Principles are in fact problematic and counterproductive. Dewey, for example, railed against Kant during WWI, claiming that the rigidity of his ethics of principled imperatives was reflected in the dictatorial and undemocratic mindset of the German regime. People who believe in democracy should be suspicious of permanent truths and principles. As Hannah Arendt argues, debate is at the heart of political life, and Truth (with a capital “T”) kills debate. (Obama’s father was a man of principle to the point of stubbornness. He had a failed career and a led a troubled life. It is hard to read Dreams of My Father and not conclude that Obama came away from his “journey” with a lasting distaste for principles. His mother, on the other hand, was the epitome of a Deweyan in her love of experience, experimentation, novelty, change, and belief in the transformational power of education.)
In the “Epilogue” to Dreams of My Father, Obama reports a conversation that he and his sister, Auma, had with Dr. Rukia Odero, a professor of history. A central question in the discussion: how should Africans adapt to the values that Westerners have brought to Africa? That Obama chose to report the conversation is telling. Rukia, I would argue, is meant to give voice to Obama’s views. She states, “I suspect that we can’t pretend that the contradictions of our situation don’t exist. All we can do is choose.” And after discussing the complexities of the issue of female circumcision, she goes on to say, “You cannot have rule of law and then exempt certain members of your clan. What to do? Again you choose. If you make the wrong choice, then you learn from your mistakes. You see what works.” (Dreams from My Father, New York: Crown, 2004, p. 434) “Seeing what works” is indeed the mantra of Pragmatism. Yet as in existentialism, this doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel the weight of moral and political decisions. It means that one can’t appeal to principles in advance to justify one’s decisions or “what works.”
But doesn’t being a pragmatist, in both senses of the term, just make Obama a relativist? No doubt for the ideologically committed, those who fear a leader without a moral compass, this would be a central concern. But once again this is to frame the issue in the wrong fashion. Relativism is a problem for moral absolutists. Without a lasting commitment to absolutes, there isn’t a problem of relativism. Instead there is the problem of deciding what values to hold. To frame the discussion in terms of absolutism versus relativism is already to accept the framework of the religious right, which is what the Republicans have been notoriously successful in doing for two generations. However, the choice is not between absolutism and relativism. It is between different values. Commitments to values arise from numerous sources, including thoughtful deliberation and prudential considerations. And it is in the realm of “prudence” that one finds a symmetry between upper and lower case pragmatism. For the Pragmatist prudential considerations do not always trump other values, but sometimes they do, because prudence or tactical maneuvering may be required to realize successfully a greater good. As a matter of fact, a thoughtful political agent doesn’t make dogmatic, read absolutistic, decisions in advance regarding what values and tactics may be the most vital and relevant.
The culture wars have depended on disagreements over specific values and the belief that principles are central to morality. Or at least this is the way that the religious right has sought to frame the controversy, a perception that neo-cons have used to reinforce their political agendas. When Obama speaks of being post-ideological, of being a pragmatist, I read him as trying to address logjams over values by avoiding divisive discourses based on principles. How does one accomplish this? Well, one way is to sound as if one is not ideological, for example, by showing flexibility on specific moral and political questions. By so doing Obama is not simply maneuvering. He is not being disingenuous. He is behaving as if he is a committed Pragmatist, and as such he is seeking to change the ground rules for political discourse.
Obama may very well succeed with a little help from his (several million) friends, and realities on the ground, namely, a serious financial crisis that suddenly has life-long, dogmatic free-marketers running for cover. He may also succeed because he is attuned to something very basic about the American psyche. It is no accident that Pragmatism is the most significant philosophy that America has produced. There is something deeply American about it. But is it Left, Right, or Center? Once again, this is to ask a misleading question. Its tent is large enough to contain persons from across the American political spectrum, if one judges political commitments by specific values. Yet in an American context Obama’s Pragmatism presents a much greater challenge to the ideological Right than to the ideological Left. How so? If the conversation is shifted away from absolutes, the Right in America will lose the ground from which it has hurled its most potent missiles. Some on the Right are beginning to recognize the threat that Obama poses. Some still believe that they can bring back the days of the culture wars. The latter, however, are predicated on the “principled versus pragmatist” distinction, one that is becoming less consequential with each passing day. So, I wish the dogmatic Right lots of luck. They will need it. As for the non-dogmatic Right, if debate is crucial to a thriving democracy, I wish them well, and so does the Pragmatist Obama.
Obama on pragmatism (with a small p) and the dangers of certainty (which relates to philosophical Pragmatism).
UPDATE, January 5, 2010: I discovered through a reader’s comment that this video is no longer available. I don’t know when it was made unavailable or why its presence on YouTube constitutes a use violation. I assume that NBC must have pulled it. It was a nice clip because it showed the kind of fallibilist sensibility that one finds in Pragmatism.
You may think that I support Obama because of his policies and character. Yes, it’s (mostly) true. But these are really trivial reasons compared with the deeper reason.
You see, I know Obama. Okay, well, maybe I don’t know him. Let’s say that I understand him. Or better, I understand something very important about him. It’s a name thing. This may not seem like much, but I can tell you that for those of us who grew up with names that are three or more syllables, and with at least as many vowels as consonants, Obama’s arrival portends a new day. Just his name will change the lives of millions of Americans. Let me explain.
My last name is Aboulafia. (It is pronounced the way that it looks: A boo la fe a.) A little autobiography will be helpful here. I was born in the U.S. As a matter of fact, my ancestors on one side have been in the U.S. for about a hundred years, and close to a hundred and fifty on the other. I know, not the Mayflower crowd, but I can assure you that I don’t speak English with a foreign accent. (Please bear with me. This will prove important.) Here is some further information. I am 6’4″, fair complected, with a short reddish beard. When I went to college in Denmark for a term, I was sometimes taken for a Dane.
During my time in Denmark, I took a trip to Morocco. The kids on the streets in Moroccan cities would often ask tourists for money, and they could do so in many languages. They would always ask me in English. Not having much money myself, I tried playfully to trick them by telling them that I didn’t understand. I was Danish. I even threw in a few Danish words. But the kids wouldn’t buy it. They laughed, giggled, and said, “No, no, American. You American, American.” So somehow these young Moroccan kids were able to spot me as an American, not a Dane or an Englishman, a German or an Italian, etc. (And I ended up with a few less bucks in my pocket.)
Okay, why do I bring this up? My last name is Sephardic, a name that Spanish Jews took a millennium ago when they lived in Spain with the Arabic Moors. It is not a “typical” Western European name. It sounds, well, just plain weird to a lot of people in America. As a matter of fact, the name itself sounds so exotic that in spite of the way that I appear and speak, Americans have often asked me where I was born, that is, in what country other than America. All they had to do was discover my last name. This would happen at check-out counters or in stores, for example, when I produced a credit card. “Aboulafia, Aboulafia? Hmm, so what country were you born in?” I would reply, often rather defensively, “Here, in America. Uh, my mother and father were born here also.” (Why I felt I had to tell a perfect stranger about my parents is part of the weird name inferiority syndrome.) When I was younger, sometimes even teachers would ask where I was from. My name, and just my name, mind you, put my nationality into question. And this would happen in spite of the evidence (me) standing and staring the questioner in the face.
So now along comes Barack Obama. And I am waiting. I figure, okay, this guy is really good, but they are going to say that he isn’t a real American. He won’t have to open his mouth. People will just look at his name. “Obama? Obama? Where was he born? Bet he’s not a real American.” He’s going to be O-U-T before he gets a chance at bat.
And then it happened. He manages to get over enough hurdles, including his name, to win the Democratic nomination. And I am thinking, “Obama, the name–three syllables, with as many vowels as consonants–is going to transform life here in the good old U.S. of A. for multi-syllabled, funny named persons.” You may think that this is a small matter. It isn’t. There are a lot of us. And we are growing in numbers every year. With the rise in immigration, strange names from all over the world have increased in America in the last decades, including ones with only one syllable.
So, three cheers for Obama, a man with a handle who as president would make many of us feel more at home in our own country. And if enough of us funny named folks vote for him, he will get a chance to do so.