Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Barack Obama's Character: Pragmatism As the Compulsive Propititation of Unnecessary Partners

Illuminating commentary on Barack Obama's character (and the implications of his character traits for his leadership and thus for the nation) by David Bromwich of Yale today, at Huffington Post. Some significant quotes:

His instinct is to have all the establishments on his side: Wall Street, the military, the mainstream media; the most profitable corporations in all but the most signally failing industries; and that movable establishment (which disappears and reconstitutes itself), the quick-take pulse of popular opinion on any given issue.


"His pragmatism is what is overwhelming him," said Obama's Chicago doctor about his approach to health care. A surprising and accurate insight. Pragmatism is supposed to trim; but taken to the circuitous lengths Obama allows, pragmatism is another word for the compulsive propitiation of unnecessary partners. It expands the work and blunts the achievement of reform.

Accurate analysis, it seems to me, and analysis that portends real problems for an administration that will not make the hard decisions necessary to implement the changes for which a popular majority provided a clear mandate in the last election. As Bromwich points out, Obama claims to follow Saul Alinsky's notion of community reform, which moves from identifying a problem that needs to be solved, through the conflictual stages of analyzing and coping with that problem, to a final stage of resolution in which attempts are made to those who have been engaged in conflict back together.

Yet (again Bromwich), Obama appears eager to move from the identification of the problem to the resolution stage without the conflict--and the choice--stage. This is, in my view, a recipe for stasis. It is akin to Rowan Williams's proposal for futher study and endless discussion of the gay issue in the Anglican communion.

Eventually, the "paralysis of analysis" must be broken (as Martin Luther King, Jr., noted), and hard decisions must be made about where moral imperatives point--about the action to which they point. That's what leadership is about, in the final analysis. And Obama's unwillingness to engage in this kind of hard decision-making represents a tremendously disappointing abdication of leadership to many of us who hoped for so much more from this administration.