Obama As Ideological Rorschach

Commentary

It's great, Sean Penn said in accepting his Oscar this week, to have an "elegant man" back in the White House.

The Best Actor is but the latest and glitziest example of a phenomenon I noticed early in 2008 primaries: Barack Obama as Rorschach. The young, new, unknown candidate was often a vessel for the hopes and wishes of voters. This is no insult to Obama; quite the contrary. The capacity to attract the positive emotions of fellow Homo sapiens is a large part of what makes a person, well, attractive.

In this neonatal stage of his administration, there is another form of psychological projection going on with the Obama Rorschach. Instead of voters projecting qualities of greatness, charisma, post-racialism or epic newness onto a candidate, you have professional partisans and intellectuals projecting political theories onto a president.

Normally, it is my irritating proclivity to make a metaphysical mountain out of a matter-of-fact molehill. In this case, the "Name That Ideology" game is a parlor act that mostly serves to obscure.

Some conservatives are essentially arguing that since Obama believes the government can solve (or help solve) big economic and social problems and that government spending can stimulate economic activity in a recession, by definition he must be a mid-20th century-style democratic socialist. This entails believing that central government planning trumps the free market, bigger government is better than smaller and higher taxation is better than lower.

In the other wing of the dorm, some liberals are pulling all-nighters making almost identical arguments. Since Obama believes the government can solve (or help solve) big economic and social problems and that government spending can stimulate economic activity in a recession, he must be a classic Franklin Roosevelt welfare-state liberal about to embark on the Great Society 2.0.

Both sides seem convinced that Obama has a secret agenda. The conservatives worry that Obama is using the Crash of '08 to sneak in a lefty statism that is far wilier and more Scandinavian than anything Tip O'Neill ever dreamt of. The liberals see Obama cunningly capitalizing on this crisis to bring Democratic ideology back to full throttle from neoliberalism and Bill Clinton's appeasement by triangulation centrism.

I haven't yet had the chance to hang with the president and discuss Hayek and Marcuse over foosball and boilermakers. But philosophically, it is hard for me to see Obama as anything other than a classic American pragmatist. Theory, consistency and team spirit are far less important than results. There is a commitment to rationalism and reform that indeed is not shared by Tory conservatives. But, then again, there aren't many Tories left, even in the Republican Party.

Culturally and socially, Obama reminds me of politically active people in their 30s and early 40s who are attracted to the phrase "social entrepreneur." As the phrase suggests, social entrepreneurs are disinclined toward lumbering bureaucratic approaches fixing the big issues and disposed to an agile, accountable, post-Google view. There are plenty of religious and Christian fundamentalist social entrepreneurs. In many ways, it fundamentally rejects ideological and partisan thinking.

Obviously, this president runs a lumbering bureaucracy. That does not make him a big-government guy, anymore than it made Ronald Reagan one. Nor do his responses to the economic crisis. When the markets crashed last year, George W. Bush responded with massive government actions and spending. He bailed out companies when the free market purists would have let them sink. Throughout his administration, Bush argued for reforming health care, education and even lifestyles he disapproved of. No one accused him of being Olof Palme in cowboy boots.

Barack Obama, of course, is a Democrat, not a Republican. As Americans use the words now, he is liberal, not conservative. Duh and so what. The business of trying to pin an ideological mission on him strikes me as wrongheaded; it fundamentally misunderstands his aspirations.

What may be disorienting about Obama is that his pragmatism is mixed with eloquence and agility with high rhetoric. And he is an historic "first." We expect pragmatists to be gray and mundane. Wrong.

Indeed, showmanship and inspiration have a very pragmatic role in politics, as Obama well knows. The late philosopher Richard Rorty was the most famous defender of American pragmatism since William James and John Dewey. Rorty wrote, "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition of self-improvement."

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