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