Monday, March 15, 2010

The Perils and Promise of Obama's Pragmatism

Business Times - 16 Mar 2010

Taking the populist route would win him political points, but he'd rather do what's right


PRAGMATISM, the philosophical movement, assumes that the purpose of philosophy is to develop ideas that help us in practical ways. It has been called the American philosophy.

It's not only that this school of philosophy was founded by prominent American thinkers (CS Pierce, William James and John Dewey); more significantly, there is something in pragmatism's focus on what works, in its fusion of the practical and the philosophical, that reflects the 'just do it' elements of the American character.

European thinkers may be attracted to grandiose but unworkable - or sometimes - destructive ideas. Americans, on the other hand, are supposed to embrace ideas that were tested and seemed to work satisfactorily. Or, as the saying goes: 'The proof in the pudding.'

The quality, effectiveness or truth of something can only be judged by putting it into action or to its intended use. A dish may have been made from a good recipe with fresh ingredients and look delicious, but you can really only judge it by putting it in your mouth: the actual taste is the only true criterion of its worth.

So it is not surprising that Americans in general, and American statesmen in particular, would rather be described as 'pragmatic' - the man of action who knows how to get things done quickly and in the most cost-effective way; as opposed to be seen as 'idealist' - someone who espouses magnificent but impractical ideas, who promises to get us to the moon but ends up digging the hole of our destruction.

This explains why so many Americans had welcomed the election of Barack Obama, who seemed to have the persona of a cool operator with a modus operandi that was based on clear-eyed pragmatism. To have in the White House a man who exuded breezy common sense was quite refreshing after eight years of a man who dismissed policy solutions that 'emerge from judicious study of discernible reality', as one of ex-president George W Bush's advisers explained to The New York Times. 'And when we act, we create our own reality,' he stressed.

But for President Obama, the only serious policy solution could only 'emerge from judicious study of discernible reality' after cost-effective analysis of many options, and as part of an effort to achieve practical goals as opposed to trying to promote an ideology that may sound very appealing but is not going to work.

'I'm not sure people understand how pragmatic he is' was the way Valerie Jarrett, one of Mr Obama's top advisers, described him in an interview with USA Today. 'He's a pragmatist. He really wants to get things done.'

Indeed, Mr Obama was portrayed as the 'post-ideological' president, who explained during a TV interview that his advisers shared 'my pragmatism about the use of power'. He also made it clear that he did not want to 'get bottled up in a lot of ideology and 'is this conservative or liberal?' My interest is finding something that works.'

And, indeed, that exactly has been the way Mr Obama has been operating since entering office, as the consummate pragmatist who selected consummate pragmatists to deal with the critical economic and national security problems facing the country. He appointed his main Democratic rival for the presidency as secretary of state, kept in place Mr Bush's defence secretary, and following a long review of US policy options, he confounded both supporters and critics by expanding US military presence in Afghanistan.

Resisting opposition from many of those liberal Democrats who helped him get elected, President Obama relied on mainstream economists with ties to Wall Street to help end the Great Recession while continuing to support his predecessor's policy of bailing out the big banks. And he succeeded in antagonising ideologues on both sides of politics - pro-free market Republicans (by embracing a government spending programme) and the progressives in his own party (by not nationalising the big banks).

And Mr Obama's plan to reform the healthcare system as well as his new energy policy proposals are nothing more than a mishmash of free-market ideas: private insurance companies will continue to control the healthcare system while the market-friendly approach of emissions trading or cap-and-trade will be used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants.

These are the kind of policies that would be applauded by the conservative parties in, say, Britain, Germany and Canada.

The most remarkable demonstration of Mr Obama's pragmatism has been his rejection of the advice by some of his supporters to launch an aggressive populist assault against Wall Street. At a time when the majority of the economically distressed Americans have been expressing what could only be described as rage against large financial firms that while benefiting from government assistance have continued to give their managers hefty bonuses, Mr Obama seemed to conclude that any major effort to punish the bankers could endanger the financial recovery.

But as some of his critics on the political left suggest, President Obama's pragmatic approach based on compromise and trying to build bipartisan support for practical ideas has not worked. It failed to win backing from the Republicans and has not ignited a lot of enthusiasm among the general public.

Is it possible that, at a time of historic national crisis, Americans were not looking for complex technocratic solutions but hoping that the president would lead them by using inspiring rhetoric and proposing radical ideas for change?

According to this view, Mr Obama needs to adopt a grand and populist narrative in which he can portray himself as the champion of millions of anguished Americans; a leader who is standing up to those 'evil' banks, financial traders and insurance companies. He should be someone who is about to transform the entire economic edifice of the nation.

Not so, counter Mr Obama and his aides, who insist that the mostly non-ideological and pragmatic American public would come to appreciate and embrace his post-ideological pragmatic policies. And, like any good pragmatist, they recognise that their proposition will be tested in the coming mid-term election, and eventually in the next presidential race. The proof will be in the pudding.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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