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Opinion

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.

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Political costs

Within our sclerotic system, Obama's philosophy-free politics seems appealing. It can make the task of uniting disparate interests easier, leading to speedier legislation. But the lack of a backbone also makes for brittle policy achievements; hence the GOP push for repeal.

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It also exposes Obama to a flank attack, whereby Republicans highlight aspects of policies like health-care reform and the stimulus package and declare him a rabid socialist or even a proto-totalitarian. Obama hasn't clarified his own brand – the larger theory that encapsulates his policies – so such attacks hit their mark harder than they otherwise should.

In 2009, The New York Times asked Obama: "Is there a one word name for your philosophy? If you're not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive?..." Obama's answer, "No, I'm not going to engage in that," underscored his fear of labels. That fear is curbing his ability to initiate a new era of liberalism. To create a lasting movement, Obama, like Reagan and FDR, must set down principles that apply to changing circumstances. His thin methodological principles are not up to the task.

Withered moral capacities

When they hide behind the cloak of pragmatism or economics, Obama and his fellow Democrats muddle what's often really at stake – the values questions. This stunts our public deliberation, making it less honest and productive. Long term, our moral knowledge and capacity atrophies.

Politics is inescapably philosophical, which means politicians in a democracy must be rigorous exponents of their core convictions. Yet many Democrats haven't engaged moral concepts seriously in public since Bill Clinton became president. And Republicans, unchecked by Democrats, have largely substituted reflexive ideological talking points for the hard work of wrestling with philosophical concepts. The result is that we are left on all sides with burning commitments to values – like freedom, equality, and personal responsibility – without the ability to debate those values with understanding and maturity. The search for common moral ground is imperative. Yet Obama's nostrum, to ignore the values debate and focus on evidence-based pragmatic points, has not promoted this.

A president with a weak sense of his own principles weakens our sense of our principles. We begin to lose our national identity, and our political system loses legitimacy. If we are a community that merely aggregates narrow, sectarian interests or simply maximizes "what works" in a pragmatic fashion, we aren't much of a community at all, and requirements that we sacrifice for fellow citizens ring hollow. The more our laws derive from moral principles – ideally, ones that reflect broad consensus – the more legitimate their demands, as philosopher Ronald Dworkin argues.

Obama's presidency is still young. Its success depends on "Obamanism" meaning something clear, bold, and convincing for future generations. For a nation built on common principle, not common blood, requires its leaders to have a coherent political theory.

Jacob Bronsther, a former Fulbright Scholar and graduate student in political theory at Oxford University, is a law student at New York University. He writes for ThePublicPhilosopher.com.

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