Maybe Barack Obama thinks of himself as some kind of Taoist president — attuned to the moment, like water that effortlessly flows around rocks, the warrior who can deflect every blow through the power of non-resistance.
Before he entered office, he exhibited a certain kind of poise that allowed some of us to indulge in fantasies about how radically different he might be from his predecessor.
An abundance of possibility was wrapped in an equal amount of mystery, but once he assumed office we’d all get to find out who Obama really is — except, two years later it sometimes seems harder to determine what, if anything, this president stands for than it was when he was a candidate.
Midway through his first term, some observers will say it’s too early to make judgments about the man, but if we can’t judge him now, what’s the basis on which to judge whether he’s worth voting for again? The next two years during which most of his actions will have been tailored to enhance his re-electability?
When it comes to determining what Obama stands for, I’d say the absence of evidence is already evidence of absence. We don’t know what Obama stands for because he doesn’t stand for anything — which is precisely why some of his wild-eyed enemies see him as some kind of Manchurian candidate.
That suspicion no longer seems so far off the mark. There is plenty of evidence that he has allowed himself to become an instrument of external forces — those forces simply aren’t as exotic as the ones the conspiracy theorists imagined.
Jacob Bronsther writes:
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.
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.