Is Obama’s Pragmatism a Losing Bet for 2012?

Reflecting upon growing voter indifference in democracies across the Atlantic, historian Tony Judt chalked it up to a roster of world leaders that “convey neither conviction nor authority” and “stand for nothing in particular.” These words resonate in the aftermath of Washington’s rancorous debt ceiling debate as Democrats wonder how, despite controlling the Senate and Oval Office, they were so bloodied by the opposition. It seems their president set the tone from the start by negotiating from a position of weakness, agreeing to unprecedented cuts in entitlement programs his party holds dear, and asking for little in return—and constantly giving in on his own demands. The Democrats must again wonder what does Obama stands for?

What is sacrosanct for him? What won’t he sell out on? What are the core, essential principles that guide this man and attach him to our party? Indeed, the president’s ideological identity has appeared increasingly muddled, to the frustration of many. His predecessor, you will recall, suffered no such problems.

George W. Bush was despised on the left for his unwavering allegiance to certain ideologies, an allegiance that ‘W’ stubbornly, often recklessly in their view, forced into controversial policy positions. His ideological allegiances are well known: Supply Side economics, Evangelical Christianity, Neo-Conservativism. He remained wedded to those theories through thick and thin, and carried out their will seemingly without much foresight or reflection. To the left, Bush was the embodiment of stupid, stubborn conviction. Of course it was precisely these uncompromising positions that endeared Bush to zealous sections of the electorate. He was, for example, a notorious favorite of Conservative Christians, who finally felt they had one of their own in the White House. He would stick to his Bible belt beliefs no matter what they looked like on the ground. In deference to their—and his—pro-life position, for example, the Bush administration pushed an Abstinence-first family planning policy in Uganda, which predictably led to a reversal in that nation’s once falling rate of AIDS infection. But no matter. Bush was a source of pride to his fans because he wouldn’t let some unfortunate facts deter him or change his mind.

Early on in his presidency, Obama’s lack of ideological intransigence seemed refreshing, a welcome change from the reckless intransigence of his predecessor. W made brash, bold, sometimes world-changing decisions ‘from his gut;’ Obama deliberated for weeks on end over troop demands for Afghanistan. Obama was more of a realist. He would never commit to an ideological stance for its own sake merely; a realist strains to imagine the consequences of policy implementation, and casts about for real world evidence that might suggest what they look like in the full light of day. A realist carefully, slowly wades in to a policy. Not W. He jumps right in, and turns African nations into giant, real-time laboratories for cherished but largely untested notions.

I felt that, at the very least, Obama is not dangerous. Ideologues are dangerous. They stick to their hunches and desires come hell or high water, and press on despite pleas and warnings to the contrary. Obama is more a natural skeptic—a real professor. Thus, he is less wedded to his ideas, and as an academic, he is open to new ones. Obama is a pragmatist; he will do what works. And in one sense, this is all emblematic of a good politician. It is his job to carry out what is best for the population as a whole—not merely the wishes of the left—and it is his job then to also ensure that he wins elections… so that he can continue to be an effective leader. A pragmatist like Obama, you see, will win states like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia—and run close in Arizona and Georgia, too.

But here’s the rub: Pragmatists are nice and all, but they are hardly inspiring—for long. Principles—and principled stands—they inspire.

Sarah Palin likes to criss-cross the country, sometimes with a gaping media army in tow, asking everyone “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?” She reminds us that Obama won on principles in 2008—or at least, the guise of principles. Hope for what? Change to what? Clearly, whether Obama dodged or ducked the specifics in lawyerly fashion, his supporters filled in the blanks and presumed that certain principles were attached to those calls for Hope and Change. In retrospect, it was really a very artful campaign: Obama pointed the way to ideological commitments without laying them out precisely, and fatally locking himself into untenable positions. He was not going to be burned at the cross like Bush senior who broke his pledge ‘No new taxes!’

However, the fact remains that Obama won in 2008 largely due to the impression that he was principled, or linked to a specific platform of principles. He flashed just enough pragmatism at that point to win some surprising battleground states. But ever since that election, left wingers grumble, it’s been a different story entirely. Obama extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, even though he long criticized them—prior to, during and after the presidential campaign. The president has not closed the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp, even though he used to flash his constitutional law expertise in deriding the Bush administration’s War on Terror. In fact, Obama’s legal instincts—and caution, and circumspection—increasingly seem to abandon him in his own front of the War on Terror: it is hard to defend the legal standing of our current drone warfare in Yemen and the tribal regions of Pakistan, seeing as we never officially declared war on those nations. His full-on drone warfare smacks of the most brazen Realpolitik that would make Dick Cheney proud.

The list goes on, of course: The president has wrung little reform from Wall Street and the banking industry, even though their reckless and sometimes immoral behavior contributed greatly to the 2008 crisis, and earned them a generous taxpayer funded bailout nonetheless. And despite the massive bank bailouts, Obama never succeeded in pressuring the financial industry to carry out widespread mortgage adjustment for millions of homeowners slipping into foreclosures, foreclosures that ensured the real estate market sunk ever lower—and the whole economy with it.

Obama pushed through a landmark health care reform bill, but in bowing to the demands of the Insurance industry, the bill leaves out core, longstanding Democratic principles, and doesn’t address skyrocketing healthcare costs that are bankrupting the government and were supposedly part of the impetus to reform healthcare in the first place.

In all of these cases, the Obama administration says it compromised and conceded its demands because that was the price of government action; political stand-off and paralysis was the presumed alternative. Moving into the 2012 elections, Obama can point out to the left that he at least has something to show for his work; he did oversee the most significant overhaul of healthcare policy in our lifetimes, as well as banking reform—and, of course, the execution of Bin Laden. These are the rewards of compromise.

That is all fine and good, and perhaps even very rational—but his record certainly isn’t inspiring. Has Obama ever made a stand? It’s hard to say. It doesn’t seem like he has. He hasn’t even taken a stand when it seemed right or easy for him to do so. See banking reform. Or see Tucson. After the January shootings that left 8 dead (including a little girl) and gravely wounded a Congresswoman—and, we learned, was perpetrated by someone with obvious psychological issues AND a gun with an enormous ammunition clip that enabled him to wreak extreme carnage—the president was characteristically timid in criticizing the current state of gun ownership in America, by for example, calling to outlaw such large ammo clips. If there was ever a time the public would have supported the president on that issue and appreciate him speaking out about it, that was the moment. Instead, the president opted for a more reticent, rational—moderate—tone. So as not to upset the gun-owning electorate, presumably.

In instances such as those, you get the feeling that the president isn’t grabbing the bull by the horns. If that is not the moment to address gun reform—when is?! If now is not the time to reform the banking industry, in the wake of banks’ highly publicized misbehavior that brought about the biggest recession in 80 years, when is? It’s enough to make you wonder about the president’s principles.

Some will explain away the indignities of Obama’s track record as evidence instead of shrewd campaign strategizing. Well, maybe so. At this point, it looks like Obama may well prevail in 2012, though that may have less to do with shrewdness as opposed to a weak roster of opponents. One thing seems increasingly clear: Obama won’t win thanks to the passion of his followers. Love him or hate him, you could not say the same of Bush. He had ardent, devoted followers – because the man ‘stood for something,’ they liked to say. What does Obama stand for? It’s just not clear any more. If you parse through the thicket of verbiage, you discover hints of principle in Obama’s speech, but they are lonely, hidden, often forgotten. Bush was straightforward, and that was a virtue, because at least you knew where he stood.

What does Obama have to show for all his dodging and ducking? On the left, he suffers a deficit of passion; on the right, he is roundly despised—for presumed principles that he has by no means embraced. Appreciate the irony: Obama is rebuked as the most awful kind of Socialist by Tea Partiers across the nation, but he has repeatedly shrunk from anything of the sort. Paul Krugman was closer to the truth when he labeled the president a ‘Corporatist.’ After all, Obama let the Insurance industry help write his ‘Socialist’ Healthcare reform bill.

If the right will intentionally, and often successfully, mischaracterize the president like this, you might say what does he have to lose? Why not embrace that image? What if he spoke out brazenly? What if he took a non-negotiable stand? What if he fired up people and truly earned the hatred of the right for a change? As Machiavelli argued, “fortune more often submits to those who act boldly than to those who proceed in calculating fashion.”

Obama’s opponents get this. The Tea Party throws caution to the wind and, for better or worse, riles up its troops. The president is confronted with an emboldened minority whose stated goal is to starve government. There is very little for him to compromise with here. Obama has no choice but to face them down; he risks being bowled over otherwise.

Democracy, Tony Judt reminds us, requires its leaders to take principled stands that alienate parts of the electorate and cause brutal government standoffs on occasion. Such is the price of political vision. Without it, the public stops caring, leaving us a democracy in name only.

Firmin DeBrabander teaches Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he is also chair of the Humanistic Studies department.