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November 18, 2008

Obama's "Moderate" Revolution

The hand-wringing on the left over the potential cabinet appointments of such ideological suspects as Robert Gates (DOD), Hillary Clinton (SOS), and Lawrence Summers (Treasury), is surely an expression of the left’s deeper anxiety over just what kind of president they helped to elect. It’s an anxiety that has roots. While many scoffed at the right wing fear mongering attempt to paint Obama as a socialist during the campaign, it’s not difficult to imagine that some held out hope that there might be at least a little truth to the charge. Likewise, Obama’s constant self-characterization as a unifier, an agent of reconciliation who had both the desire to listen to opposing voices and the ability to forge working alliances with those across the aisle, probably struck many as better political boilerplate than actual governing practice. After all—and after eight years (or forty years, depending on your measuring stick)—liberal Democrats were finally in charge, with a mandate for change; what’s the point of compromise?

A careful and close reading of Obama, his books, his campaign, and now his transition, suggests that he is a true believer in his own message. He takes seriously the need to bridge the divide between parties, races, ideologies, and people. And this means working in good faith with all the “Others” of American society and politics. This also means that for liberal Democrats hungry for pay back, an ideological purge of the political culture, the next four (or eight) years will be more frustrating than the last eight. With Bush, there was no reason to check hostility; it’s far more difficult to unleash on the captain of your own team.

Does this mean that Obama is a moderate? Or, if he is a liberal or progressive at heart, might he also be a de-facto centrist, a liberal so habituated to compromise and conciliation that he lacks either the imagination or the courage to advance an aggressive agenda that reflects his values?


My hope—and my faith, from the perspective of this early date—is that we are on the cusp of a bold and dramatic redirection of American politics and policy. And what some are reading as a moderation in the new president is really more a matter of method. Not tactics, per se, but a perticular way of thinking about change that impacts both the way change is

In "The Visionary Minimalist," published early in 2008, Cass Sunstein offered a useful way to think about Obama by casting him as a paradoxical hybrid combining two, otherwise antithetical, dispositions. For Sunstein, Obama is both a pig picture visionary and a methodological minimalist. He explains:

Not unlike the great conservative Edmund Burke, minimalists are fearful of those who are gripped by

abstractions, simple ideologies, and large-scale theories. Minimalists tend to respect traditions, and they do not believe that long-standing practices should be altered lightly or without a careful analysis that includes many voices. Minimalists insist that their approach shows a kind of civic respect, because they seek to recognize--rather than to repudiate--the defining principles of ideologically diverse judges and citizens. In disputes over religious freedom, for example, they prefer results that can be accepted by believers and nonbelievers alike. Minimalists also defend their approach on pragmatic grounds. In their view, those who seek enduring change are not likely to succeed if they defy the deepest beliefs of large parts of the country. On occasion, minimalists are willing to think big and to endorse significant departures from the status quo--but they prefer to do so after accommodating, learning from, and bringing on board a variety of different perspectives. The Court's decisions banning sex discrimination emerged from a minimalist process, starting with small steps and culminating in larger ones that nearly all members of the Court, and much of the nation, were ultimately willing to endorse.

On the other hand, visionaries:

have a large-scale understanding of where the nation should be heading. They are entirely willing to press a controversial theory about, say, liberty or equality or the president's power as commander-in-chief, even if that theory offends many Americans. Visionaries object that minimalists are too cautious, too accommodating, too fearful. If visions call for wholesale rejection of the views of "the other side," so be it. Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Hugo Black rank among constitutional law's great visionaries, having favored sweeping decisions about federal power (Marshall) and free speech (Black). On today's Court, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas frequently operate as visionaries, in the sense that they are entirely willing to overrule precedents in favor of their own distinctive visions of constitutional law. They would gladly overrule Roe v. Wade, and they would readily reject decades of precedents on affirmative action and campaign finance regulation.

Sunstein is, by his own description, a minimalist. Moreover, he is a long term friend of Obama's (and husband of Samantha Power, the star foriegn policy advisor he was forced to let go after calling Hillary a monster during the primaries); he is a likely presidental appointee--perhaps even a Supreme court nominee. So it's still fair to wonder if we should be placing the accent on the "minimal" and regarding as mere rhetorical flourish suggestions of anything "visionary."

But Sunstein has elsewhere given us a pretty good clue to just how visionary--indeed, radical, a minimalist can be. In one of Sunstein's recent books, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Greatest Speech, endorses a radical vision of change, one he resurrects from the past. As glossed by the author himself, Sunstein revisits FDR's 1944 State of the Union message:

But the real legacy of the leader of the Greatest Generation and the nation's most extraordinary president has been utterly lost. His Second Bill of Rights is largely forgotten, although, ironically, it has helped shape countless constitutions throughout the world -- including the interim Iraqi constitution. To some extent, it has guided our own deepest aspirations. And it helps us to straighten out some national confusions that were never more prominent, and more pernicious, than they are today.

It's past time to understand it.

Roosevelt began his speech by emphasizing that war was a shared endeavor in which the United States was simply one participant. Now that the war was in the process of being won, the main objective for the future could be "captured in one word: Security." Roosevelt argued that the term "means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors," but also "economic security, social security, moral security." He insisted that "essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want."

Moving to domestic affairs, Roosevelt emphasized the need to bring security to all American citizens. He argued for a "realistic tax law -- which will tax all unreasonable profits, both individual and corporate, and reduce the ultimate cost of the war to our sons and daughters." We "cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people -- whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth -- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure," he declared.

At that point, the speech became spectacularly ambitious. Roosevelt looked back, not entirely approvingly, to the framing of the Constitution. At its inception, the nation had protected "certain inalienable political rights -- among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures," he noted. But over time, those rights had proved inadequate, as "we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence."

"We have accepted, so to speak, a Second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all -- regardless of station, race, or creed."

Then he listed the relevant rights:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.

The right of every family to a decent home.

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.

The right to a good education.

In this light, minimalism sounds more like consensus-building leadership--with real purpose.

Posted by stevemack at 09:49 AM | Comments (0)

November 06, 2008

Obama and the Virtue of Excellence

When reading the tea leaves to discover how Obama will staff his administration and, ultimately, govern, Howard Fineman observed that “excellence” was one of the President-elect’s animating values. The notion resonates more deeply than perhaps even Fineman is aware. It is a value straight out of Camelot and the Kennedy Administration’s faith in the powers of technocratic governance and its impulse to populate its ranks with, in David Halberstam’s ironic phrase, “the best and the brightest.” From a forty-eight year distance, the idea is likely to seem either naïve or banal—either a dangerous faith in experts (the sort Halberstam reminds us got us into Vietnam), or utterly lacking in the in the kind of deep human purpose that would make the work of those experts meaningful. But it’s worth remembering that, for Kennedy as for Obama, such a sharply defined faith in the transformative power of excellence is nothing less than a faith in human possibility. It was, and is, a belief that there is nothing we cannot do if we think smart enough and work hard enough. It is the silent verb buried deep within the American Dream. And, if those words strike us as just a little bit silly, even embarrassing, it’s because not believing them has become the defining attitude of our age.

Obama, of course, is no baby boomer, and so his connection to Kennedy’s unique brand of idealism is not a matter of generational nostalgia. But, it’s rather clear that the Kennedy connection is explicit for him, that it is a value he has inherited more or less directly from Kennedy himself. The link is his parents, both father and mother. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, he describes his mother as a very real person, an eighteen year old Kennedy-style idealist who was attracted to his father in part by her own political romanticism. In several telling and poignant passages he makes it clear that her idealism was childlike in its innocence yet remained a potent force in her life until she died—driving her to live and work with the poor of Indonesia. Correspondingly, he presents his father as a larger than life, mythological figure—a stature he achieves in part because he genuinely had a charismatic personality and in part because he was absent, and thus owned a fictional persona unchallenged by its contrast with the more prosaic identity never came into conflict with its mythic counterpart. But more important still was the content of that myth. In his own estimation—and the estimation of others as well—he was a living embodiment of the same ideals Obama’s mother had fallen in love with. He was a bright, young, endlessly energetic African student who came to America not only because it was a place where he might realize his own promise of excellence, but because it was the fountainhead of promise itself. When he returned to Kenya he went back preaching the American gospel of a meritocratic society. He was eager to transform his homeland along the lines of the ideal America he believed in—to make it a place where a thirst for progress and a faith in the power of excellence could break the shackles of tribal cronyism and corruption. Barak Obama Sr. was a Kenyan Horatio Alger.

Though Obama only met his father once, the book makes clear that the myth of his father was a constant companion. It was kept alive, in part, by his mother. In Obama’s nomination acceptance speech he recounts a time while they were living in Indonesia that she decided Barak “was an American, and had better learn what that meant.” In that speech, out of context, it sounds like a throw away line—something might say to burnish his patriotic credentials, especially if they were being challenged by some jingoistic opponent. It’s a deeply unfortunate interpretation. In context we see exactly what his mother meant. It comes at a moment when she sees her son being corrupted by the necessities of raw power, a jungle law unmediated by American ideals, American hope, and American faith in the ability to envision a better world—and the human potential to make it.

This is the Kennedy legacy.

And this is Obama’s obsession with “excellence.”

Posted by stevemack at 01:43 PM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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