What Barack Obama failed to address in his remarks, however, is that some political disagreements are real — grounded in principle, or differences in judgment, or varying emphasis on different priorities, or the inescapable fact that human beings have different preferences.
This is why the claim that we only care whether government “works” or not, and supposedly do not care about its scope or size, rings false every time. This is the pragmatism or competence dodge that annoys some of Obama’s supporters as much as it annoys me. As they understand correctly, a dedication to competence does not tell you what is important, why something should be done (or not be done) or why it should take precedence over other things, but at best leads to the best way to achieve a certain end. The competence dodge involves pretending that we all want the same thing–a government that “works”–and assuming that we all agree on what the government ought to be doing and not be doing. The pragmatist of this sort cannot explain why the President should not have the power to detain suspects arbitrarily and hold them without trial for years while subjecting them to torture, except perhaps to say that torture does not work (if it did, the pragmatist would have nothing to say about it). If warrantless wiretapping “works” to some degree as a means of counter-terrorism, why should the pragmatist care whether it is illegal?
This is the most frustrating thing about “pragmatic” rhetoric–at best, it obscures the real differences and so suffocates the debate under the pretense that we all want the same things, and at worst it severely narrows the range of the debate to two marginally different status quo alternatives and thus deprives most of the country of real representation. This is the political universe in which bipartisanship is the highest virtue, because if we all really want the same things the only thing that can thwart political action is random partisan rancor. Even though Obama knows and we know that he knows that he holds certain principles, and these principles define the role of government and the appropriate limits of state power, and we also know that his definitions vary greatly from those of conservatives, it is as if he cannot mention them. This is not his famous aversion to ideology, but more basically an increasing reluctance to espouse political principles that he has already publicly embraced earlier as he comes closer to wielding executive power.
I can understand why some of his supporters would find this irritating. It is the reverse of the problem conservatives have had with Republican Presidents: the latter often paid lip service to limited government, and some of them, including Bush, stressed the importance of strict constructionism (!), but not one of them really ever governed as if they were serious (because they weren’t). Obama offers the opposite combination: a President who will probably carry out at least some of the policy agenda that progressives want while studiously avoiding all language that suggests that the policy has anything to do with progressive ideas. Perhaps that is the more tolerable combination, but it is still weirdly limiting. One of the advantages in getting a politician to adopt your rhetoric is that it may force him in certain directions in which you want him to go; the danger is that it simply associates you with him publicly and tars you with whatever he ends up doing.
I am fairly sure I have heard him say that he believes health care is a right, so he must believe that it is a matter of justice that everyone have some insurance or access to care and that it is therefore not only appropriate but necessary for the state to intervene to ensure that no one is “denied” his “right” in the future. That has huge implications for public policy, obviously, and it derives from fundamentally different views of what government is for and what citizens should have as a matter of right. So it is not just a matter of finding what “works” and disagreeing about how best to achieve that end, but it is a mattter of disagreeing whether or not justice demands that the government do anything. This is repeated again and again in many different areas of policy. For instance, does the so-called “responsibility to protect” oblige our government to intervene in the affairs of basketcase, ruined states such as Zimbabwe, or is that far beyond the proper responsibilities of our government? Does the “responsibility to protect” extend to members of other polities at all? Saying that we all want a government that “works” answers none of these questions, but prompts many more: to do what? for whom? for how long? A pragmatist must love the “surge” and all associated tactical plans, because these are the sort of small-bore cases of problem-solving that pay no attention to strategic goals or national interest. Rather than ask why we are still in Iraq and what possible purpose the war serves, focus on whether a given tactical plan “worked” and pretend that this resolves the debate. That is where an emphasis on pragmatism and competence leads–to what Sammuelson once described as the “sanctification of the status quo.”
The one part of the Inaugural that I found simply absurd, the only part that caused me to laugh out loud, was when the President said this:
and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
In other words, thanks to the extensive use of coercion and power in our history, we know that other people can also be broken and forced to submit to new, more uniform political orders. Our common humanity shall reveal itself through still more coercion, and we shall make a desert and call it peace. Or is that too “cynical” of a reading?