Part one, in a two part series exploring the intersection of rhetoric and pragmatism in the politics of Barack Obama. Part two is here.
A lot of people watched the Obama inauguration speech waiting for what I found myself calling “the Kennedy moment.” They listened intently for that one line, that marvelous sound bite, that piece of undeniable wisdom, that defining sentence that helps us define ourselves just a little bit better in this troubled time. Obama’s best speeches have done this to great effect.
In the weeks since the inauguration there has not been much agreement on which, if any, one phrase settled in the minds of the nation as the sum of the entire speech. It’s likely that those who did find what they were looking for in his speech, found it in different places, identifying with various pieces of what was a complex and wide-ranging address.
For me, the line that stood out in Obama’s speech was not aspirational or inspirational. It was not a call to serve or a call to act. At best, it was a clarification – but an important one. One our nation has needed to hear and one that, for me, indicated volumes about how Obama will approach his work as president.
Towards the end of his speech, in what appeared at first to be little more than a pre-emptive pitch for the massive stimulus spending package that was already waiting in the wings, was this short passage:
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
The entire passage is important, but I want to focus in on one line in particular, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This line is brilliant rhetorically, beautiful in its composition, and powerful in its message. It takes a long standing talking point of the Republican party (smaller government is better government) and confronts it head-on with simple common-sense. It asserts essentially “they are asking the wrong questions, and they already have their minds made up.” To ask if government is too small or too big, suggests a value system already in place informing your answer. To ask simply “what works” removes values (at least on the surface) and hitches your judgments and your action to evidence.
On top of that, it is a great line and was delivered perfectly.
What struck me most about this line was the way it crystallized the pragmatic foundation at the center of Obama’s decision making process. For Obama, good government is government that works, that “helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” To understand good government we have to look away from the partisan positioning that has defined our two party system and look at the actual results on the ground. How are our policies – new and old – impacting people? What is their influence on the world?
Much has been made about Obama’s Illinois political roots, most often in reference to Lincoln. However, it was impossible for me not to hear echoes of another Chicagoan in Obama’s remarks on that cold January day: John Dewey.
In his essay “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy” John Dewey writes, “If changing conduct and expanding knowledge ever required a willingness to surrender not merely old solutions but old problems it is now.” In this piece he advocates for a pragmatic approach that calls on us to test our ideas against our own experiences of the world. When deciding how to act, how to be, we must look to the future and consider how that decision will impact the world.
Dewey’s predecessor William James perhaps said it most concisely: “In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true?” In other words, what works and what doesn’t work? William James and John Dewey’s willingness to cast off the traditions and accepted ideas of philosophy is a hallmark of pragmatism. This decision helps them understand the world in new ways, and challenges them to test their ideas against the real world. One of the most important aspects of their philosophy was its emphasis on action, on testing our assumptions, testing our decisions, on acting and learning from that action, and then revising our understanding of the world through that experience.
Obama hinted at this pragmatic emphasis earlier in the month, in his big economic speech on January 8th. He said:
“There is no doubt that the cost of this plan will be considerable. It will certainly add to the budget deficit in the short-term. But equally certain are the consequences of doing too little or nothing at all, for that will lead to an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes, and confidence in our economy.
That’s why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan won’t just throw money at our problems – we’ll invest in what works. The true test of the policies we’ll pursue won’t be whether they’re Democratic or Republican ideas, but whether they create jobs, grow our economy, and put the American Dream within reach of the American people.”
Here he is looking forward, refusing to be bounded by the narrowly defined and polarizing dichotomy of “Democratic or Republican ideas,” and instead promising to test his ideas against the world. In this passage he calls on people to look at his policies, not through the lens we have used for so long, but through a new lens – one focused not on DC now, but on America in the future. In doing so, he is also shifting the responsiblity and the power to define what works from DC insiders to the American people. On National Public Radio, one commentator described this as “The sense of, we are going to provide you with competent leadership that is not full of certitude — we have ideas, we’re going to try the ideas; if they don’t work we’ll try something else, but we’ll get it done.” As he did so well in his campaign he is calling people to be involved.
Obama has long been known as a uniter. And even while his election could be considered a landslide after the narrow margins of the 2000 and 2004 elections, he still faces a deeply divided country. However, instead of ignoring those divisions (or exacerbating them) as George Bush did, Obama has taken them head on, and refused to be bound or beholden to either side. This has long been part of his rhetoric. Think of this well worn sound bite from the campaign: “We are not just red states and blue states, we are the United States.” And consider these passages from his inaugural address: “Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill,” and in the next section,”As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” He is refusing the “false choice” that our old ways of thinking and speaking have locked us in to, and is trying to chart a new course.
John Dewey has a number of extended discussions in his writing about the misleading and damaging ways in which these sorts of dichotomies have organized the world around us. For Dewey, as for Obama, these dichotomies break down in the realm of experience. Dewey focuses primarily on the dichotomies of human/nature and body/mind, while Obama deconstructs red/blue, liberal/conservative. In Obama’s experiences as a community organizer and in his goal of finding what works, he recognizes that drawing lines is much less useful than connecting dots.
In his essay entitled, “Body and Mind” Dewey invokes the word “techne,” from ancient Greece to designate a form of thinking that included “both science and art.” Dewey is interested in life as a process that encompasses both the physical and the mental and uses the phrases “wholeness of operation” and “unity in action” to capture this idea. We can almost see Obama working phrases like that into his own speeches.
Where Dewey was most focused, in these passages, on the individual, Obama sets his sights on the body politic at large. And in this passage from his inaugural address we see these ideas of wholeness, unity and action espoused:
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
In this passage we get a glimpse of one more vital overlap between Obama and pragmatism – the emphasis on language.
I’ll explore this and other issues in more depth in part two of this post.