Opinion

Obama's change: minor or major?

Our policies will change: Will our values, too?

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Barack Obama has sheathed himself in a single word: change. And yet uncertainty lingers as to its genuine meaning, both for him and for America.

The two fundamental ingredients to politics are values and policies. Every policy manifests some set of values and principles. For instance, the policy of a minimum wage embodies a judgment on the value of fairness. With this in mind, political change can take one of two main forms. It can overhaul both a community's values and its policies (Change 1). Or it can keep the community's values, but modify its policies (Change 2).

Change 1 is revolutionary. It alters a society's moral foundation, which in turn reshapes its policies; everything is different. Communist government in America would constitute this sort of change.

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Change 2 is subtler and distinctly American. A supporter of Change 2 might argue that American values – those enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – are good, but that they are not reflected in national policies. This is Martin Luther King's style of change. The civil rights movement, in its effective forms, did not argue that American values were flawed, but rather that the system needed to more fully embrace them.

Americans, generally, fear Change 1. We distrust any notion that we should alter the liberal values of the Founding Fathers. We are conservative liberals.

The issue today is whether Mr. Obama offers Change 1 or Change 2.

Obama, unsurprisingly, argues that he offers Change 2. He presents himself as a steady pragmatist who will bring reason and cool judgment to the White House. He implies that his policies – on taxation, diplomacy, energy, and healthcare – are the products of prudent reflection on Bush's failures, not on any abstract philosophy that conflicts with that of Madison and Jefferson. He portrays his vision as nonideological and thus embraceable by a grand coalition of Americans. Toward that end, he promises to calm the partisan tone of Washington politics.

During the presidential campaign, John McCain's supporters disagreed, often pronouncing Obama's politics radical, socialist, or otherwise "un-American."

Obama's relationship to American values is not as simple as either side would like us to imagine. His ideology is a mix of early 20th-century American thought. He takes a large dose of William James's pragmatism, with its commitment to doing whatever "works." In practice, that means ignoring messy philosophical debates and empowering experts in the public arena. Pragmatism is ideologically anti-ideological. He then adds some of Randolph Bourne's passion for cultural and intellectual pluralism.

Obama's probable cabinet reflects these components. It includes a woman (Hillary Clinton), a Latino (Bill Richardson), a Republican (Robert Gates), a former Republican (Timothy Geithner), and an African-American (Eric Holder), all noted for their rarified intelligence and competence.

Obama rounds out his ideology with a helping of FDR's expanded notion of human rights. In aiming to deliver "freedom from want," it moves beyond mere access to a democratic system to include a host of "positive rights."

Clearly then, Obama's values have American roots. The question, however, is whether these values are necessarily American. If people view pragmatism, pluralism, and positive human rights – which include the right to healthcare – as American values, they will see Obama as an inspiring agent for Change 2. But if they think these values are inimical to true American values, say, of personal responsibility, strict property rights, and limited government, they will fear Obama as an agent for Change 1.

For America to unite as Obama imagined, the nation must decide on its shared principles and priorities. It is unlikely, however, that a national discussion will bear fruit. The election was much closer than the Electoral College reveals. Nearly half of all voters supported a candidate with a starkly different understanding of American values.

That said, the most contentious portion of Obama's ideology – his commitment to positive rights – may be too expensive to prioritize right now, given current economic conditions. Conversely, Obama may view this crisis as the perfect opportunity to enact the bold social policies on which he campaigned. Whenever this move occurs, in a few months or a few years, Obama's relationship to American values, and the type of change he presents, will once more become the major question mark that hangs over him.

Jacob Bronsther, a former Fulbright scholar and graduate student in political theory at Oxford University, is a law student at New York University.

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