Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Moral Clarity

In their gut, a lot of people whose ideological sympathies lie with Obama and the Democratic Party feel that something’s missing from the Obama presidency. This post by John F. Harris and James Hohmann taking the temperature of a cross-section of Democratic elites invites us to speculate about what it is (my emphasis):
“In interviews, a variety of political activists, operatives and commentators from across the party's ideological spectrum presented similar descriptions of Obama’s predicament: By declining to speak clearly and often about his larger philosophy — and insisting that his actions are guided not by ideology but a results-oriented “pragmatism” — he has bred confusion and disappointment among his allies, and left his agenda and motives vulnerable to distortion by his enemies.

“The president’s reluctance to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan, who spoke without apology about his vaulting ideological ambitions, has produced an odd turn of events: Obama has been the most activist domestic president in decades, but the philosophy behind his legislative achievements remains muddy in the eyes of many supporters and skeptics alike. There is not yet such a thing as “Obamism.”  
You can always count on political elites to reduce every political fact to an artifact of their own machinations. So if Obama’s silence about his “larger philosophy” is politically problematic, in their eyes it must be either a symptom of inept messaging on the part of Democrat operatives or adroit messaging on the part of Republican operatives. Let’s do our best to steel ourselves against inside-the-beltway narcissism by contemplating the possibility that the widespread perception that something important is missing from the Obama is explained by fact that something important is really missing. What should be there that isn’t?

My name for the missing ingredient, for what it’s worth, is “moral clarity.” Those words have acquired unwholesome connotations in liberal circles because they were often used to compliment George Bush in the wake of 9/11.  But they mean something. Harris and Hohmann aren’t very explicit about what they think is involved in having a “larger philosophy.” If a president’s having one means anything, however, it must mean being intellectually and morally prepared to govern. And that entails having a relatively well-articulated ordering of political priorities and a clear enough sense of their relative urgency to calibrate tradeoffs among them when circumstances don’t permit their simultaneous realization. If “to govern is to choose,” you can’t govern intelligently without already having figured out what’s important.

“Moral clarity” on the part of a president is largely a matter of visibly having, and sticking to, a relatively well-defined and morally intelligible schedule of priorities. Reagan had it. Looking back on his presidency you can explain why he did what he did, even his cynical concessions to political expediency, by pointing to a stable set of priorities that persisted throughout his presidency. The fact that so many liberals are pining for a “liberal Reagan,” and lamenting Obama's not being one, suggests that they appreciate the value of moral clarity in a president even while they deplore the priorities that it revealed and served during the Reagan presidency.

That moral clarity isn’t a feature of Obama’s presidency is revealed most dramatically on the occasions in which he has tried his best to affect it. Remember the first official act of his administration, the executive order providing that the Guantanamo detention facility would be closed within one year. Obama’s pitch was that Gitmo needed to be closed summarily because its existence visibly betrayed American values. That sounded like the reassertion of ethically vital priorities until Obama’s fatuous renunciation of the “false choice” between our values and our security showed it for the moral grandstanding it was. Obama wasn’t saying that closing Gitmo was important enough to justify an incremental loss of any other valuable good, like public safety, or keeping hardened jihadists from returning to the battlefield.  He was saying that, now that he's president, the world would become so hospitable a place that no hard choice needed to be made. Eighteen months later, it's pretty clear that he hadn't really thought much about what he was doing.  I don’t think it’s much of stretch to say that Obama’s equivocations about the Ground Zero mosque (see here), same-sex marriage (see Richard Just here) or prosecuting the Afghanistan War while remaining coy about the urgency he attaches to achieving his military objectives show that the Gitmo episode isn’t an isolated instance.

That raises a question vital to the future of liberalism: does Obama have a well-designed set of priorities that he’s chosen not to reveal because of its unpopularity, or do he, and the liberals around him, think they can do without one? I’m not sure which answer is more disheartening: the first concedes that liberalism has to be promoted by stealth in a democratic polity; the second empties liberalism of its moral content.

1 comment:

Osama Von McIntyre said...

I think you've articulated something quite central to the current political situation. And I think that Obama's lack of a well-articulated set of principles is precisely what allows conservatives to project so much craziness about Obama's motives (that he's a Marxist, that he is wreaking revenge on white America, that he is actively working towards the destruction of America...)

I think that the root cause is that Obama is a genuine intellectual, and is able to simultaneously understand and comprehend many conflicting viewpoints, and is personally reluctant to make dogmatic pronouncements.

This is very frustrating for me. No politician in my lifetime is more capable of articulating complex dilemmas, or of rousing an audience. But Obama seems to be able to pull *this* rabbit out of a hat only when his back is to the wall.

Part of the reason that conservatives hold liberals in such contempt is that liberals seem to back away from "conviction" under even the slightest political heat. It certainly makes it appear that the convictions were simply tactical.

We need a politician who can full-throatedly articulate a liberal vision that can be understood and respected (if not necessarily supported) by all. I really thought that Obama might be it. But it may just be that he is tempermentally incapable of unambivalent conviction. If that's the case, I am very sad.