Sunday, March 7, 2010

Frank Rich on What Obama Administration Needs: Substantive Belief System, Bedrock Convictions

Frank Rich in today's New York Times about the inability of Mr. Obama's pragmatism to meet the needs of a nation in distress: 

Obama prides himself on not being ideological or partisan — of following, as he put it in his first prime-time presidential press conference, a “pragmatic agenda.” But pragmatism is about process, not principle. Pragmatism is hardly a rallying cry for a nation in this much distress, and it’s not a credible or attainable goal in a Washington as dysfunctional as the one Americans watch in real time on cable. Yes, the Bush administration was incompetent, but we need more than a brilliant mediator, manager or technocrat to move us beyond the wreckage it left behind. To galvanize the nation, Obama needs to articulate a substantive belief system that’s built from his bedrock convictions. His presidency cannot be about the cool equanimity and intellectual command of his management style.
That he hasn’t done so can be attributed to his ingrained distrust of appearing partisan or, worse, a knee-jerk “liberal.” That is admirable in intellectual theory, but without a powerful vision to knit together his vision of America’s future, he comes off as a doctrinaire Democrat anyway.

Substantive beliefs, bedrock convictions.  Not pragmatism.  I concur wholeheartedly, though, unlike Mr. Rich, I don't see the appeal to substantive beliefs and bedrock convictions as antithetical to "intellectual theory."  The idea that there's some objective perching point beyond taking sides and choosing the values we intend to promote is ludicrous to me--as are intellectuals (and journalists) who purport to sit on that perch.

The pretense of being in the middle and not taking sides is ultimately all about serving the interests of those who occupy the power seat in any society--usually those with money and political clout.  We won't get out of the mess we're in now until some leader somewhere decides to stand up, be counted, and articulate (and fight for) clear, fundamental values necessary to keep democracy alive.