Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Newsweek on Obama's Moral Cowardice: Find Principles!

Jacob Weisberg’s latest op-ed piece in Newsweek is rightly gaining attention around the internet.  Weisberg decries the moral cowardice of President Obama, and encourages him to find moral principles around which to build his presidency.  Weisberg adopts as his frame of analysis the new carpet the president has recently installed in the Oval Office, which is ringed with inspiring quotations from Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy, and the two Roosevelts, along with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Noting that “Obama has let pass moment after moment . . . in which he could have reframed an issue in terms of inclusiveness and justice,” Weisberg urges the president to “read the rug”: the carpet reminds Mr. Obama daily of Dr. King’s statement that “the arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  But if Mr. Obama reads his rug accurately, Weisberg thinks, the reminder he will be facing daily with the rug in his office is a reminder of “the distance between the president’s veneration of moral leadership past and his failure, so far, to exhibit much of it in the present.”

Weisberg’s summary of Mr. Obama’s missed opportunities to govern by clear moral principle, this summer alone:

Obama has had numerous chances to assert leadership on values questions this summer: Arizona’s crude anti-immigrant law, the battle over Prop 8 and gay marriage, and the backlash against what Fox News persists in calling the “Ground Zero mosque.” These battles raise fundamental questions of national identity, liberty, and individual rights. When Lindsey Graham argues for rewriting the Constitution to eliminate the birthright-citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment, or Newt Gingrich proposes a Saudi standard for the free exercise of religion, they’re taking positions at odds with America’s basic ideals. But Obama’s instinctive caution has steered him away from casting these questions as moral or civil-rights issues. On none of them has he shown anything resembling courage.

Unfortunately, from the outset of his administration, this president and his advisers have preferred instead to follow the New Democrat tactic of attacking the “interest-group” politics of the progressive wing of the Democratic party.   But while New Democrats talk about moving beyond the ideological interest-group politics of the left, they have freely and gladly imported into the Democratic party key presuppositions of neoconservative political and economic thought, including the belief that government should whenever possible bow to demands for decreased taxes for the wealthiest among us, for decreased government controls on rapacious business practices and the exploitative behavior of the corporate sector toward the middle class, workers, and the environment, etc.  

New Democrats love to talk about how they have transcended the dogmatism of progressives and taken a pragmatist path that moves beyond ideology.  In effect, what this means is that pragmatist Democrats have essentially given the government store to neoconservative economic ideology, in the name of a pragmatic compromise that purports to transcend the ideological divide between the left and the right, while it skews heavily rightward.  

With notable exceptions (such as Weisberg), spokespersons for the mainstream media adore this “bipartisan” rhetoric with its claim to trump ideology with pragmatism and its pretense to move beyond the “doctrinaire” positions of progressive Democrats.   The media eat up the rhetoric of bipartisanship and pragmatism because they have a great deal invested in maintaining the economic status quo.  And so they collude in crafting a media narrative that depicts the progressive wing of the Democratic party as “doctrinaire” and inflexible in its application of unyielding principles.

What such analysis spectacularly overlooks, of course, is that one can be principled without being doctrinaire.  And one can be a principled pragmatist.  What makes a world of difference is the set of principles on whose basis one acts: what makes a world of difference is whether those principles are ethically sound, clearly articulated, followed with fidelity in one's decisions, and thoughtfully considered as one comes to a political or practical judgment.

The rhetoric of the mainstream media about “doctrinaire” “interest-group” politics of progressives reflects and keeps alive in the Obama era a neoconservative strategy to keep off the table the unsettling, status-quo disturbing questions that various marginalized groups bring to the table in our political and cultural debates. The dominance of this rhetoric about the doctrinaire left with its ideological interest-group politics in mainstream media narratives demonstrates the tremendous extent to which the center of political discourse in the U.S. has moved to the right in the period of neocon dominance of the latter decades of the 20th century—and remains far to the right of where it was prior to the second half of the 20th century.

One can be principled without being doctrinaire.   And one can be a principled pragmatist.  The problem facing the president, vis-à-vis the pragmatist approach he has taken at the behest of his chief advisers, is that the principles guiding his non-ideological pragmatist style of governing are nowhere in sight.  

And his presidency and the Democratic party in general are now suffering tremendously for this void of moral principles and principled leadership, as we face the fall elections.  Had Mr. Obama shown moral fortitude from the outset of his administration, the Democratic party would not now be facing a rout in the upcoming elections, with the return of the House to Republican control. 

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