A president with no principles

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.

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8 thoughts on “A president with no principles

  1. Vince J.

    Obama is a BRAND. It was created for people to confuse ‘feeling good’ with the real political experience. Chris Hedges, John Pilger had plenty of articles pointing out who Obama is/WAS.
    Today, this weak politian is also a WAR CRIMINAL for his silence during the 2008/2009 Gaza massacre, for the excalation of the illegal wars and drone attacks, for the Torture of prisioners in Bagrham and Guantanamo, for the escalation os the wars to Nigeria, Yemen and Pakistan and for the obstruction of justice regarding the War Criminals from the previous administrations.

    But hey… 14 trillion in debt and counting!!!! Surge Obama surge!!!!!!!!
    Democrats and Republicans are the two side of the same corrupt corporate turd.

  2. Vince J.

    … it is also important to stress that his criminal administration is preventing Aristides, the democraticly elected president of Haiti to return to his country.
    Aristides was taken from office twice by the USA, who hates democracy. Once under the War Criminal Bill Clinton and the second time under the War Criminal W. C. Bush.

  3. Norman

    Well, you get what you pay for. As to who paid, the population who voted for him, only paid nickles & dimes, while the Wall Street Elite are the ones who piled the big bucks into electing him. So, the people get the shaft and have to pay, while the W.S.E.’s get to skate free. Besides, “O” is the 1st, even if only 1/2 & 1/2. I would venture that some off shore account has a tidy sum in it with his name on the book.

  4. delia ruhe

    Tony Blair, indeed! I wish I was better at remembering exactly the day during Obama’s campaign against Hillary when he “secretly” telegraphed Ottawa and assured them that they need not take seriously anything he was saying to American voters about possibly changing or even ending NAFTA. But that was the day I quit taking seriously anything he was saying. Period. The day after he won the nomination, he rushed over to the AIPAC conference to assure the Zionists that “Jerusalem will never be divided.” That was the day I knew Palestine was doomed. My students (that semester I was teaching a Cultural Studies course which I themed “The American Empire”) thought I was a terrible killjoy for my lack of enthusiasm for the glamorous movie-star American candidate so different from the dangerously bland theo-con Stephen Harper, who was also in the process of being (re)elected that semester. Clearly, that Dubya had pushed the empire beyond the advertised “hope and change” was not sinking in. The only person in Canada who is quietly celebrating Obama’s decision to continue the Bush legacy is Harper himself. We are frakked.

  5. Christopher Hoare

    No Taoist; the emperor hides his edged tools and waits quietly for the opportune moment to act. Obama is all an act and no philosophy at all.

    Actually he has a system of values — the one that has characterized America for the past 40 years — the only value is money and the only expression of that value is to gain what one wants. I’m sure he’d send AIPAC packing if they didn’t control the money and votes he covets; he’d bear down on Wall St if they didn’t already own his presidency. He is quintessentially a centrist, ready jump in the most opportune direction at the drop of a hat — that’s where most people who gush with pride about their democratic beliefs reside — “vote me a handout” and I’ll elect you. It’s a shame but perhaps it’s only the extremists — right and left — who have a moral stance.

  6. Tony Litwinko

    You have writ the nail on the head, PW. Good analysis and apposite references. And thanks to delia ruhe for reminders of a few things that made a lot of us very skeptical during the 2008 campaign. The man knows the side on which his political bread is buttered.

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