Obama's change: minor or major?
Our policies will change: Will our values, too?
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.