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.