A Briefer Theory Of "Obamaism"

Writing in the New Yorker, George Packer cautions that pragmatism is a useful way to explain Barack Obama's temperament. While pragmatism can serve as a useful adjective describe hang specific presidential actions -- or actions within the larger context of something -- it cannot and does not explain what Obama is doing and why he is doing it. "What underlies so many of Obama's decisions," Packer writes, "is an attachment to the institutions that hold up American society, a desire to make them function better rather than remake them all together."  Obama is therefore more than Republicans an heir of Edmund Burke's "respect for tradition" and James Madison's "promotion of countervailing checks on concentrations of power." 

Packer has captured Obama's fundamental American-ness -- Obama knows that Americans hate the health care system but like their health care, which is why his reforms will be kluge-y, but we are still left with definitional questions: why does Obama favor activist government? Precisely what balance ought to be struck between the Congressional and legislative branches? What tension exists between Obama, existing in the arena of "mere politics" -- think of his denial of the fact of future budget deficits -- and Obama, existing in a realm of new politics he brought to life -- think of his willingness to challenge sacred cows and some of the very institutions that hold up American society.   I still think pragmatism -- or "radical pragmatism" -- is the best description we've got, so far. It explains not only why Obama is proposing Big Things -- like any modern American liberal-radical, he is impatient with the status quo and has faith in the power of collective action -- it explains the how: using filaments to paint an outline and letting Congress go wild with the fur brushes.  By the way: the word "radical" hear does not imply that Obama belongs to any particular class of liberals (though he is quite liberal), or that he is extreme, out of the mainstream, or dangerous. Please strip the word from its historical connotations. By radical, I mean to say that Obama's view of government its revolutionary for its time, and that he is an active participant in creating the future.  As Packer notes, the left is debating whether Obama "lacks the courage of his activist impulses."  I agree with Packer that such a debate misreads who Obama is. Consider the oft-cited example of Obama and the bank bailout. I'll happily defer to Paul Krugman and knowledgeable critics about the particulars and the appropriate sequence of events. But I can't figure out how a government that creates several trillion dollars instantly, quasi-nationalizes several banks, fires underperforming CEOs, proposes a broad new regulatory framework -- and is somehow seen as not living up to the ideal of modern political liberalism?.   

It seems to me that most of Obama's concessions to political reality are temporary and designed to further other goals; he's deferential to Congress here -- he asserts his power there. He meets with Republicans to build a long-term relationship. He lets the House roll the Senate on the budget. He intervenes, surgically, when necessary.  We're obsessed with short-term, short-term, short-term -- whether Obama gets France to spend more money or commit more troops to Afghanistan -- and we ignore the year's worth of fundamental changes to the world that he packed into that week.  

Better thinkers than me will come up with a more palatable way to reconcile Obama's radical impulses and his pragmatic temperament. I'm open to revising my temporary thesis as events warrant. For example, Obama is eager to please -- that's something I haven't been able to fit into my theory.  Criminy -- we're just 80 days into this thing.