Obama’s “pragmatism”

Peter Berkowitz’s latest column is called “The Poverty of Obama’s Pragmatism.” My first thought was, what pragmatism.

Obama is, after all, an ideologue. He seeks radically to transform America both at home and in its role abroad. When Obama seeks to redistribute income and to lessen America’s footprint in world affairs, he does so based on a pre-set ideological vision of how things should be, not on an empirical analysis of what course of action will work best in the real world.

But this approach, though not consistent with the common understanding of “pragmatism,” fits comfortably within the tradition of American pragmatist philosophy. As Peter explains:

Rather than dissolving metaphysical questions, [American philosophical] pragmatism encourages the delusion that they have been dissolved. When pressed, philosophical pragmatism becomes a series of rhetorical ruses designed to impel those who wish to explore the deep conflicts between moral, political, and religious views to shut up and go away.

Obama’s political pragmatism operates in similar fashion. It preaches that disputes between left and right that appear unresolvable are illusory, while systematically resolving them in the left’s favor.


Claims that Obama is a pragmatist in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense are based on confusion between substantive pragmatism and political pragmatism. Obama is a politician and thus has often felt compelled to act in politically pragmatic way.

Left to his own devices, Obama would not have increased U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Nor is it likely that he would have devoted resources to finding Osama bin Laden. But political considerations forced his hand.

The case of Afghanistan is particularly instructive. Obama tried to split the policy difference by “surging,” but with fewer troops than the military wanted and with a pre-announced withdrawal date.

This move looked politically pragmatic, but certainly was not pragmatic in substance. The true pragmatist always focuses on what is likely to work. Launching a military offensive while telling the enemy how long the campaign will last was inherently unlikely to work.

Obamacare is also instructive. Here too, Obama was politically pragmatic. He relied on congressional Democrats to figure out what would work politically — i.e., what would pass Congress — without worrying about what was in the actual legislation. A genuine pragmatist would never act this way because the legislative details will always have a strong bearing on whether a law will work in practice.

It turns out, however, that even Obama’s political pragmatism is impoverished. Its political consequence is incoherent policies that have undermined both the president and his party.

Going after bin Laden while ignoring the resurgence of al Qaeda throughout the Middle East and North Africa produced disastrous results that are now clear for all to see. Radically reforming the health insurance system without a clear understanding of how the legislation would work, or even what it says, has produced one surprise after another — nearly all of them bad. The Supreme Court may be poised to deliver the final surprise.

Obama is the only president in my lifetime to experience wave-election defeats in two mid-term elections. The first could, perhaps, be explained away as the product of a terrible economy and a highly controversial reform (Obamacare) that had not yet conferred its benefits.

Last week’s wave cannot be so explained. The explanation lies instead in what Peter calls “an inexpedient brew of dogmatic progressivism and disdain for government process.”

Pragmatists in the true sense should be appalled.


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