Erik Larson

Feb 7, 2009

Obama, Pragmatist?

Gail Collins offers in the NYT today an apology for Obamaites , attempting I assume to both placate and wisen them up. I’m hardly worried about Obama’s presidency this early on, but it is interesting how public support has slipped both for him (from 80s to 60s, though this is typical), and for the stimulus bill which, if not passed, he’s declared could lead to economic catastrophy. Wow. What happened?

Here’s the problem. Obama won office with promises of change in Washington. Within weeks, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi crafted a spending bill that even the down-and-out Republicans found big holes to poke and big political points to gain. It’s not that the Republicans were that brilliant, mind you. The House bill was just that bad . In other words, weeks after Bush exits and change enters, it’s more politics as usual. The initial House stimulus bill was so embarrassing that Obama contacted Pelosi, requesting removal of funding for contraceptives and resodding of the White House Mall. Good for him.

Even so, large swaths of proposed spending are still earmarked for goverment and health care sectors, which are suffering about a third of the unemployment that is wreaking steady havoc on manufacturing and construction. It’s hard not to recognize the tension with, on the one hand, rhetoric about immediate action to stave off economic catastrophy , and on the other, spending nearly a trillion tax payer dollars in a manner that, so far, has been difficult to defend as straightforward stimulus. If we are headed for catastrophe, why is it still politics as usual?

We’re used to hearing by now that political pragmatism is the antidote to partisan bickering and gridlock. It’s what the smart politicians do, we’re told. Indeed the pragmatist label has adorned Obama’s politics since if not his presidential campaign at least his tone while President-Elect, and mostly it still sticks. But the latest poll numbers suggest that “pragmatism” cashed out only as compromise on spending packages that are increasingly viewed with sceptism is politically hazardous. It’s also, substantively speaking, inaccurate. Obama will be a pragmatist not because he accepts compromises that assuage political parties but because he adheres to the notion that partisan interests should be subjugated to practical ones in times of crisis. Pushing through flawed legislation by courting votes isn’t enough. The truly pragmatic standard is in fact much higher.

Obama must explain how the current 800 billion dollar package will in fact create jobs and help the economy . We need plain language about how the deficit increase will get offset by job creation. (Liberal media mouthpieces like Rachell Maddow have proclaimed recently how it’s so obvious that spending just is stimulus . She means that stimulus just is spending . On the latter, not the former, we all agree. Tax cuts are of course spending too. No worries, Rachell.) So, we need our new President to work us through the logic of the bill, or explain what the Hill needs to do to fix it, or scrap it. That’s pragmatism. The stimulus package is a tool that we must understand will solve the current problem.

“Ideas are tools” was a slogan of the 19th century American pragmatists. Whatever works, is what ought then to be regarded as True. Generations of thinkers have poked holes in this idea on theoretical grounds, but for our current conundrum, ideas-as-tools is much better than ideas-as-abstractions. This is particularly true with the economy (and especially the complex, global economy), because it’s increasingly hard to peer into the future to see how ideology will work in complicated contexts. This is why the Keynesian versus supply side debate seems so stale these days; who knows any more what will work? Pragmatists will start with what we know — say, the data in the Congressional Budget Office reports — and work bottom up towards some practical solution, however it looks through the lens of ideology.

But regardless of how we view the larger philosophical issues here, it’s clear that political pragmatism understood as simply passing more spending legislation , skewed this way and that to make politicians happy, is hardly confidence inspiring. This is just politics as usual. For 800 billion tax payer dollars, we deserve more.