Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pragmatists and Progressive Saviors

Everybody’s thinking that Obama’s surprising petulance in yesterday’s press conference reveals something important about the man as an ideological specimen. Although presidents don’t usually resort to such nakedly partisan rhetoric when announcing that they've signed onto a bipartisan political transaction, it wasn’t all that surprising hearing Obama calling his Republican counterparties “hostage-takers.” That’s the sort of thing he’d been saying throughout the last election campaign.  Obama's complaints about not getting enough credit from “sanctimonious” liberals, however, were more than a little jarring.

David Kurtz has a particularly interesting take on what Obama thereby revealed about himself (my emphasis):
“Obama's press conference this afternoon will be seen as a turning point if not in his Presidency then in how we understand and perceive him and his approach to politics. . . .

“What we saw and what I think we'll see borne out by subsequent events is Obama revealing in a very public way the choice he has made between the two political personas he has simultaneously inhabited throughout his candidacy and his presidency. He has tried to be both pragmatist and progressive savior. And even when he stopped trying to be the savior after he was elected, he was at a certain level content to let supporters continue to project that persona on to him.

“Today, he very clearly and loudly said: that savior persona is not me. I am the pragmatist. And you know what, I don't have a whole lot of patience for the idealists. I share their ideals, but I don't share their approach and I'm not going to get bogged down in recriminations over not living up to some abstract ideal.”
Let’s unpack the distinction between political “pragmatists” and “saviors” a little. A pragmatist is like the CEO of a public company inasmuch as his eye is fastened on the quarterly rate of return on political capital calculated in the currency of policy achievements and political advantage. A political savior is in the business of redeeming ideological souls by giving his comrades occasions for reaffirming their political identity by staying on the right side of the lines he draws in the political sand. Accordingly, doctrinaire followers expect their saviors to demonstrate their own ideological authenticity by being ready to suffer politically for not crossing those lines themselves.

As much as I appreciate the terms of the comparison that he's drawing, I think Kurtz has misapplied them.  It doesn't look to me that Obama “stopped trying to be the savior after he was elected.” He looks like he's still shocked to discover that liberals are feeling betrayed seeing him cross the bright line they thought he was drawing over tax cuts for the rich.  If you ask me, Obama's feeling betrayed by liberal expressions of betrayal because it never occurred to him that he had to choose between being a pragmatist and a savior.

In that respect, he presents an interesting contrast to Bill Clinton. Clinton campaigned for the presidency as an unapologetic New Democratic. He was always ready to seize on a Sister Souljah moment to demonstrate that, although he subscribed to core liberal values, he wasn’t a traditional liberal in the mold of, say, a Walter Mondale.  Clinton wasn't in the business of saving liberal souls.

Obama campaigned for the presidency with the conviction that he presented the spitting image of the face modern liberals want to see when they looked in the mirror. He wore his pragmatic intelligence and his impatience with time-worn ideological categories as a badge of liberal authenticity. If Obama didn't still think he could be both a pragmatist and a savior, he wouldn't have spent so much of yesterday's press conference getting "bogged down in recriminations over not living up to some abstract ideal." 

Obama thinks that he's an adult liberal and that his critics on the left are being childish.  Liberals will decide for themselves whether he's right about that.


Anonymous said...

Obama is never one to reveal his priorities publicly. Why would he be explicit about whether he wants to be a pragmatist OR a savior?

Ben said...

Obama is not above compromising with Republicans when he is backed into a political corner. But he cares a lot more about what liberals think of him than Clinton did.