Core Beliefs and Pragmatism in Obama’s Politics

Obama's pragmatism

"President Obama is a political pragmatist and said so repeatedly throughout his 2008 campaign," Peter Paris writes. Credit: Creative Commons/Rodrigo Faveras.

President Obama is a political pragmatist and said so repeatedly throughout his 2008 campaign. Unfortunately, many of his supporters failed to understand the full meaning of that reality. Consequently, they did not realize that his political actions would be based on judgments about what is possible rather than what is harmonious with some ideal truth.

In his article in the Fall 2012 print issue of Tikkun, Gary Dorrien rightly claims that the frustration many progressive democrats have had with Obama lay in their claims that his actions contradicted his campaign promises. In fact, they thought that Obama shared their core beliefs, which they believed would be the driving impulses for his actions. In fact, they thought he would legislate those core beliefs as such. But such is never the case with pragmatic politicians, and that includes Obama. Since American politics is pragmatic, citizens are able to agree on specific practical actions without agreeing fully with one another’s core beliefs or sacrificing them. This is the art of political compromise about which much has been heard throughout Obama’s first term.

The question now is whether or not Obama will be able to win back those progressive supporters who have fled from his camp. In so far as they are ideological, they will not return because they cannot make their core beliefs secondary to political expediency. In that respect, left-wing ideologues function very much like right-wing ideologues. Neither is ever content with compromises. If Obama were to undertake such possible actions as the following, he might win back some progressives who would be satisfied with such actions:

  1. Make some new appointments to the cabinet.
  2. Propose some radical changes to the health care bill should the Supreme Court rule against it.
  3. Announce a major public works program.

Nonetheless, in its last days, Obama’s 2012 campaign should strive to address a new group of independent supporters by carefully educating them in the nature of political pragmatism by demonstrating how it does not contradict core beliefs. Rather, the campaign should emphasize that those beliefs will be united in the broader civic virtue of building a united citizenry which designates Obama’s basic moral and political commitment: one that he powerfully enunciated in his first national speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that propelled him into national visibility. He needs to persuade his supporters that his moral vision of the United States as not divided by blue states and red states or among racial groups can be realized not by serving the interest of any one group but the good of all the people who are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a vision that Obama shares with the founding fathers as well as such iconic champions of freedom and justice as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Further, he would do well to find effective ways to unite his 2012 campaign with that of 2008. The difference between the two campaigns could be seen in the substance he is now able to give to the slogan “Change We Can Believe In” that he did not do the first time round. Thus, he should give primacy to his jobs program for putting people back to work by repairing and updating the nation’s urban infrastructures of rapid speed transportation, roads, bridges, schools, and alternative clean fuel resources. Admittedly, this would mean the embrace of a neo-Keynesian economic model for rebuilding the nation’s economy, which has been delayed up to now. Designing a place for the imagination, energy, and zeal of young people in this venture might rekindle the commitment of those who are uncertain about the future.

In my judgment, Obama would do well to confess to his supporters that his patience in waiting for Republicans to cooperate was excessive. Consequently, because of the near peril to which they subjected the nation, they deserve a judgment similar to that which the British government recently issued against Rupert Murdock, whom it called “an unfit person” to head such a significant institution as News of the World and other British newspapers. President Obama would do well to bring his rhetoric to bear on this matter and thereby demonstrate a fighting spirit that has not yet been revealed so clearly either in principle or in action.

Hopefully, it is still not too late for Obama to lend legitimacy to the ideas that were set in motion by the “Occupy Movement.” He should find a way to praise those activists for embracing his demand that the rich should pay their fair share in taxes. President Obama could undertake all of these measures by specifying that his first term comprised necessary preparatory work for more substantive political achievement in his second term.

(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives on American Beyond the 2012 Election, click here.)

Peter Paris is Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary.
 
tags: Democracy, Politics & Society, US Politics   
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