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Pragmatism Still Has Its Limitations

About two months ago Peter Wehner was discussing the “limits of [Obama's] pragmatism.” He wrote that “[w]hen pragmatism — an approach to politics that is characterized by centrist, moderate, deal-cutting instincts rather than a commitment to core political principles — becomes a defining political identity, it often leads to ad hoc policies,” to which I added my two cents:

A capable government has to make decisions everyday, and these decisions all have to be derived from some ideological framework. Does Obama want a competent government that can work to better America’s image in the world? That’s great.  But deciding that America’s image is more important than other things is a decision based on ideology. Does Obama want to save the American car industry? Of course he would need a competent government to do that, but he also needs to have the desire to do that. That desire is ideological, in the final analysis.

Today, Jacob Weisberg covers the same aspect of the issue in Slate. Of course, I would subscribe few of the policies he would like Obama to pursue, but I nevertheless empathize with his concerns over the new occupant of the White House:

In 2009, looking out over the largest crowd ever assembled in Washington, D.C., Barack Obama framed the issue in terms of simple efficacy. “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,” he said. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

This view is in keeping with Obama’s nonideological approach to politics. To most of those listening, it surely came across as an expression of our new president’s unsentimental good sense. Yet on rereading the speech in the less euphoric light of the next day, that passage seemed insufficient as a governing philosophy and, if taken for one, rather troubling. “Whatever works” is less a vision of the public sector’s proper role than a place-holder for someone who has yet to figure out what he thinks that role should be.

Back In December, I wrote of “the pragmatic means that Obama hopes to be able to use-but there also has to be an end.” What Obama is doing, writes Weisberg, is blurring “execution with intention, means with ends.”