Barack Obama: Radical Centrist, Responsible Leader in Difficult Times

Barack Obama is not your typical Democratic politician. He is not your typical politician, for that matter. In so many ways, some subtle, some resounding, he is unique. But what is perhaps the most important attribute of his politics is that his thinking is not rooted in relentless commitment to an ideological agenda. He is a centrist; he is a pragmatist; and, where he arrives at progressive policy solutions, he does so because he has reasoned through the value of those solutions.

In many ways, this has made him an ally to the progressive movement throughout his career, but it does not mean he will always follow the instructions of the progressive movement. He is a thinker, and that means he understands and benefits from a genuine comprehension of intellectual contributions to our deeper understanding of the world; that does not mean he is beholden to any particular intelligentsia. He believes public service is about thinking through real, human solutions to human problems.

There is a matter-of-fact rationality to this approach that many would classify as conventionally conservative. Bruce Bartlett, a top policy aide to Presidents Reagan and Bush, the elder, has said Obama’s actual budget and debt policy has been on the “moderate conservative” side of the fiscal policy spectrum. He tends to prefer policies that ensure that where government plays a role in how people live, it should defer to their individual liberties, and not dictate behavior or outcomes.

This thinking is in line with many aspects of conservative policy thinking, but we all know that does not make Barack Obama a conservative ideologue or an ally of the conservative movement. There was much made of the potential for a “post-partisan” kind of politics during the 2008 campaign, because of Obama’s track record of bipartisanship and his willingness to work with rivals to craft pragmatic solutions that make government work.

Much of that talk vanished from the scene when the progressive pragmatist was met with the most ferocious and committed hardline conservative opposition in living memory. Some sought to blame the president for the radical partisanship that overtook the United States Congress, though he was often the lone voice calling for dialogue, for collaboration and for a revival of the political will to put aside partisan interest and work together to make government work for the American people.

It has consistently been Pres. Barack Obama who has been willing to spend political capital to make bipartisan compromise possible, while his opponents in the Congress have steadfastly refused, even touting their stiff resistance to any bipartisanship as a matter of principled public service. Obama has remained centrist and has insisted on balanced solutions, even when the leader of the Republican opposition in the Senate swore his party to the “destruction” of Obama’s presidency, come what may for the country.

Why does this matter? In 2008, I wrote an analysis of Obama’s political platform and his professed views of functional political process. At that time, it was clear Obama is a radical centrist, firmly rooted in the attitude that extremes are counterproductive, division is corrosive and ideology does not present solutions, only abstract commentary.

His book, The Audacity of Hope was less a memoir and more a treatise arguing in favor of a centrist politics of pragmatic, collaborative problem-solving. That so many rivals, allies and commentators seem to have missed this simple, salient fact, is as surprising as it is problematic: it is inaccurate to view Obama as an ideological progressive, and the radical opposition of Republicans to his centrist policies is doing measurable, lasting harm to our economic and political systems.

With the attentive, pro-active, collaborative response to Hurricane Sandy and its brutal impact at the human scale, we now see in stark relief the kind of principled pragmatic centrist leader Barack Obama is. The demonstration of this leadership quality is so pervasively evident in his administration’s response to the disaster that the man many might argue has been his most relentless and searing critic, New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie, now lauds Obama for his genuine concern and intense focus on helping the state to help the storm’s victims.

Many progressives may not be happy with Obama’s persistent drive to be the highest representative of all of the people, and to channel genuinely diverse political views into complex practical crisis responses and major reforms. But they should acknowledge that this is, in fact, what they voted for in 2008. Obama was the most successful vote-getter in the history of presidential politics not because he was a radical revolutionary, with a scorched-earth game-plan, but because he was a principled moderate pragmatist, committed to public service first and not driven by ideological bias.

In the cold light of morning, supporters and opponents alike now question whether Obama’s policies have somehow held back the country’s economic progress or made job-creation more stagnant than it would otherwise be. But honest economic observers note two very important points that voters need to keep in mind:

  • When Obama took office, we now know the nation was coming out of 9% GDP decline in the 4th quarter of 2008—essentially the beginnings of another Great Depression—and his policies quickly put a stop to that collapse.
  • None of his critics had a plan to shepherd the economy through these doldrums and emerge stronger than before, yet analysis of industrial production, small business commercial expansion, community reinvestment and lending, show that the Recovery Act has done its job in steadily easing the economy out of what would have been total collapse.

Republicans don’t like to admit this, because he is not their guy. And Democrats don’t like to admit this, or aren’t sure how to articulate it, because much of his policy approach has been a mix of Keynesian Democratic crisis-response and moderate Republican market-based reformism. And there is the complication that the Republicans have relentlessly opposed Obama, even on solutions he borrowed from them, like small business tax credits, low-cost healthcare exchanges, the public option, cap and trade, and the targeted “cut-and-rev” approach to deficit reduction.

The political system is becoming radicalized, polarized between two false choices: one party’s dogmatic vision and the other party’s rejection of that vision, the two parties engaged in a kind of dance wherein each tries to occupy the position of leader and rejector at the same time. This is unfortunate, and there is no end to the examples of intense criticism of this dynamic. But what is important is that such a situation makes it very difficult for a radical centrist to lead effectively.

There are far more pragmatic moderates in the Democratic party than in the Republican party, at least at the level of national government, and that is a real lead weight on the campaign of the Republican party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Once a moderate governor of Massachusetts, who still struggled to work across the aisle, Romney has disavowed all of the sensible positions he had once taken on economics and civil rights, in a desperate quest to court the large number of extreme thinkers who dictate policy in his party’s national apparatus.

But the bulk of the population is demanding more radical centrism and less polarization. In July 2011 polling on the debt-ceiling negotiations, fully 75% of Republicans expressed a desire to see new revenues as part of a balanced plan to reduce deficits and the long-term national debt. The targeted “cut and revenue” approach favored by Pres. Obama represented the view of the vast middle of the American political spectrum  (well more than 90% of those polled), and Pres. Obama was willing to sacrifice political capital to put aside ideological sacred cows and push for the pragmatic, centrist approach, resolve an intractable crisis, move the country forward and make a more just and egalitarian democracy more possible.

Obama may have suffered some serious setbacks in public opinion polling since the failure to achieve that particular centrist “grand bargain”, but his attempt to get there was not shocking, did not defy his history and is not contrary to what his supporters, or even some of his opponents, want. It is, simply, representative of his broad political philosophy of cooperative government, leadership as problem-solving and public service as a service to all of the public.

As Michael Tomasky reported for Newsweek:

Obama believes in civic virtue, and in the idea that in a democracy it’s the duty of responsible leaders to reason together on behalf of something they all agree to call the common good. The fancy name for this theory of government in political-philosophy circles is civic republicanism: the “civic” part refers to action taken in the public sphere, while “republican” (a small-r republican and a big-R Republican are very different animals) signals a concern with tyrannical majorities and a faith that reasoned debate will produce a balanced result.

You might be laughing already, but the concept has played a crucially important role in American history. Thomas Jefferson cherished and advanced civic-republican beliefs, as did James Madison. Not bad: the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the thinker who produced some of the most important Federalist Papers written in defense of the U.S. Constitution of 1787. In the early 19th century, these ideas were still alive enough that we had a brief period of more or less civic-republican government under James Monroe.

Every voter should decide whom they will support, and why. And independent voters have a responsibility to hold qualification, qualities of judgment, flexibility and commitment, as paramount, to counter the balance of uniform partisan interest on the two ends of the political spectrum. But independents also have to take seriously that we must filter partisan rhetoric in order to see the landscape clearly.

Barack Obama is a radical centrist, committed as a matter of principle to governing by way of pragmatic public service to the whole population. This may or may not appeal to your political tastes. But it is what it is. Whether that centrism is ineffective, because the economy is growing slowly, is a tougher question, and less a matter of taste: the American economy is presently undergoing the shock of intensive curative treatment—maybe not intensive enough—for long-running pathologies that resulted in unhealthy tendencies.

Are the Democrats right that focusing mainly on major public investment will do more to create jobs? (The periods 1993-2000 and 2009-2012 suggest they might be.) Are the Republicans right in assuming that spending slows growth and cutting taxes makes everyone wealthier? (The period 2001-2008 suggests they are not.) Much of this debate comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith does not argue that markets are perfect and can never assign values incorrectly; he argues that abuse can interfere with the democratic tendencies of a healthy marketplace.

When financial collapse stems from abusive financial product development, banks’ deliberate manipulation of finite loan values, and an unhealthy blending of insurance, banking, investment and hedging interests, the crisis is linked to fundamental market distortions. This means that in order to right the economy, there needs to be market reform, designed to uproot the abuses and reverse the distortions that came to choke off constructive flows of private investment.

While Pres. Obama is being criticized for becoming consumed with crisis after crisis, his reform vision mired in a chaotic peppering of calamities, he has consistently worked to confront crisis head on, and to fashion—against all odds—a broad coalition of support across the ideological spectrum. To date, not one of the Republican presidential candidates has proposed a coherent practicable plan of any kind to deal with healthcare insurance denial, the decline in wages, the ongoing foreclosure crisis, substantive banking reform or the national debt.

As a Wall Street executive and former Treasury official wrote for the New York Times:

The candidates’ extreme views on economic policies reinforce the broad perception that American politics have become more polarized. Keith T. Poole, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, found that ideological divergence in Congress was the highest in at least 120 years. Interestingly, he concluded that the increased polarization resulted mostly from Republicans’ moving to the right, a conclusion that dovetails with the fact that Mr. Obama remains basically centrist even as his would-be opponents vie to outdo each other in their extreme form of conservatism.

Ideology does not solve problems. That was, in another age, one of the central assumptions of American democracy in the face of totalitarian communism, during the Cold War. Democracy is about considering competing opinions and forging a constructive—and case-based—coalition of support for the best ideas. That is the what today’s radical centrism requires: that we take stock of the intellectual landscape, and make judgments.

The biggest problem Obama has faced in the 2012 election cycle is the resistance many voters have to doing this basic work of citizenship. The problem we face as a nation is that there is no other principled centrist in the race, at this moment. Gov. Romney and Amb. Huntsman were thought to be candidates to fill that void, but caught in an increasingly vitriolic primary campaign against Pres. Obama’s centrism, Romney adopted much of the far-right point of view, abandoned Huntsman to the wolves, and became the “etch-a-sketch” candidate, apparently willing to say (or condone) anything to get elected, and even refusing to offer specific policy proposals that would allow voters to know what will happen to them if he implements the vague ideas he says constitute his “Five Point Plan”.

Our times are too complex for ideological solutions. We need candidates that have a vision of fairness, of what constitutes basic contact with truth and evidence, and who will govern as leaders not of parties but of the nation. Pres. Obama had faced the challenge of making his committed centrism a rallying cry for a second term, but we have seen him lead with responsible and visionary urgency, keeping in mind his obligations to all of the people. The Republicans, by contrast, have shown they can wage a campaign in which it appears true civic virtue is virtually forbidden.

On November 6, vote your conscience; vote your country; vote for Pres. Barack Obama.

One response to Barack Obama: Radical Centrist, Responsible Leader in Difficult Times

  1. Darrin

    A centrist doesn’t work to transfer 1/6 of the private-sector economy to a government bureaucracy that is neither compassionate nor efficient. It is an ideologue who calls together those who have a different view of public policy under the photo-op guise of “bipartisanship” and then tell them, “I won. It’s my way or the highway.”

    Obama is no centrist. He is an ideologue. I just hope that he can develop enough of a sense of pragmatism that he actually does try to work with others who don’t agree with him in the effort to create a legacy other than another four-year stalemate.

    History will not remember House Republicans for the stagnation of our government. They will remember the man in the White House, though.

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