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What does President Obama really believe?

No matter how you feel about Obama, his lack of clear philosophical values is not only a political problem for Democrats but a moral problem for America. So far he's the piecemeal president.

By Jacob Bronsther / January 21, 2011

New York

Quick quiz: In one sentence, describe FDR's political philosophy. Good, now summarize Reaganism. Pretty easy, right?

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OK, do the same for President Obama. Still thinking? Don't worry, Mr. Obama is, too. And that's bad news for all of us. Because no matter how you feel about Obama, his lack of clear philosophical values is not only a political problem for Democrats but a moral problem for America.

Ad hoc balancing

It didn't start like this. Obama surfed into the White House on a wave of seeming principle: change, bipartisanship, reason, deliberation, pragmatism. What we didn't realize is that all these concepts are methodological. They concern the process of forming public policy. But they are not bedrock principles upon which we can orient the ends of government.

They are so general that they provide little analytical or moral traction. Who objects to deliberation and evidence-based policy? Well, maybe George W. Bush, which is why Obama's "change" narrative worked so well in the election. But since his inauguration, Obama's methodological political theory has proved thin and sometimes incoherent. He will never support tax cuts for the rich, until he will. He criticizes Bush's expansive view of presidential war powers, then adopts it. The list goes on.

It's not that he breaks his policy promises more than other politicians. It's not that he seeks compromise – a virtue. It's not even that his policies are wrongheaded. It's the fact that when he compromises, when he reaches policy conclusions, there's no sense that it derives from anything other than ad hoc balancing.

There is no well of enduring principle upon which he seems to draw. Even if he's a pragmatist, eschewing universal principles in favor of context-specific values and concerns, we still don't know what those temporal values and concerns are, or why he believes in them. So far he's the piecemeal president.

He has failed to justify even his signature policy achievement, health-care reform, beyond appeals to saving the country money. Aspects of the reform surely will, but not the part where we extend health coverage to 30 million people. There are good, if complex moral arguments to justify this. But the most we hear from Obama are heartbreaking anecdotes about sick people without coverage. Political debate is rarely about facts and results alone. It's also a matter of moral principle. Democrats seem to have forgotten this. Many Republicans have not, espousing the supposedly urgent virtues of a Reaganesque, antigovernment philosophy daily, if often hypocritically.


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