| Spring, 2012

A Lack of Audacity?

Obama and the Common Good

Like many Americans, I spent the month of July, 2011 compulsively reading the news, oscillating between rage and despair as I watched the debt ceiling drama unfold. Political leaders sought to outbid one another, each of their proposals more draconian than the last. By the time the brinkmanship had ended, tax increases on the wealthy, favored by most Americans, had long since been off the table. The only question was just how severely the federal budget was to be cut. When a deal was reached to form a special “supercommittee” to decide on the specifics of the cuts, with automatic “triggers” targeting defense and Medicare spending in case of failure, the nation and its lawmakers appeared to heave a collective sigh of relief. The whole affair conformed almost perfectly to the thesis Naomi Klein defends in her book The Shock Doctrine: that American politicians have increasingly relied on disasters (both natural and man-made) to enact far-reaching and unpopular policies—including massive transfers of public funds into private coffers—with little oversight or democratic participation.

In the midst of these chaotic events, the central protagonist maintained his familiar, unflappable calm. Working most of the month behind closed doors with House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional leaders, Barack Obama pursued what has been the watchword of his presidency: “compromise.” In fact, much of the groundwork had been laid before anyone in Washington began hammering out a deal. Right from the start, the President accepted the conservative line that the government had been spending too much money (read: on “unsustainable” social support programs) so that, even in a time of massive economic depression, austerity measures were the only viable solution. Whatever bickering there was, it did not concern these “facts.” While the President portrayed himself as a levelheaded centrist negotiating between equally irrational warring factions to find a common-sense solution, the initial agreement about the situation excluded all genuinely moderate proposals from the very beginning. Despite the fact that corporations and the mega-rich enjoy historically low tax rates, Obama offered deep spending cuts in exchange for a meager increase in taxes. More surprisingly still, the President’s plan placed Social Security and Medicare, the so-called “entitlement programs,” on the chopping block, even though these programs have absolutely nothing to do with the national deficit. [1]

Conventional wisdom from the mainstream media suggested that Obama did this, like many things in his first term, to appeal to moderate voters. Yet social service programs still enjoy broad support. According to a poll conducted in 2010 by the Pew Research Center, over 87 percent of Americans believe that these New Deal programs have been good for the country. When asked whether it was more important to preserve Social Security and Medicare benefits than to take steps to reduce the national deficit, 60 percent of the Americans polled responded that preserving benefits was more important. Even 50 percent of Republicans polled agreed. In the aftermath of the debt deal, this trend has only solidified: according to a NBC/WSJ poll conducted in August, 2011, 78 percent of Americans think it unacceptable for the congressional “supercommittee” to cut these benefits. Such numbers cast doubt on the conventional wisdom that the President’s proposal was designed to impress independent and moderate Americans.

If the President’s grand bargain wasn’t intended to win over independents, it certainly wasn’t an effort to curry favor with liberals. At the time, the debt-ceiling fiasco was only the latest case in which the Obama Administration had faced scrutiny from the Left. Most notably, Obama came under fire when he compromised away his campaign promise to let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire, despite the fact that doing so would generate $700 billion in revenue and affect only 2 percent of Americans. But liberals have also been upset by Obama’s failure to prosecute Wall Street corporations and individuals for the financial fraud that caused the current economic depression, his continuation of the wars (and the war spending) in Afghanistan, Iraq and later Libya, his continued expansion of the security state, and his abdication of the “public option” in the health care debate.

Generally speaking, we can divide liberals into two camps when it comes to rationalizing Obama’s policies: the Can’ts and the Won’ts. According to the Can’ts, Obama doesn’t live up to liberal expectations because it simply isn’t possible for him to do so. The President was dealt a bad hand: he took over during the worst economic period since the Great Depression, when America was fighting two wars (three, if you count the drone war in Pakistan), and then, since the mid-term elections, he’s had the misfortune of working in a sharply divided political system. He has therefore been forced, so the story goes, to advocate a bipartisan consensus more conservative than the one he would ideally pursue. (Indeed, the White house itself spent a good portion of last fall endorsing precisely this narrative.) The Won’ts, on the other hand, insist that these factors alone are insufficient to explain the President’s actions: it’s not that the President simply cannot fight for more liberal policies, it’s that he isn’t really committed to doing so. This camp points primarily to how long the list of failures has become and to the President’s refusal to reframe debates in terms that would be more amenable to liberal legislation, relying instead upon the rhetoric and representation of the political climate used by conservatives.

While I am certainly sympathetic to the Can’ts—it is undeniable that President Obama has been working under conditions that are less than ideal—I have become increasingly convinced that the Won’ts are right. The President’s actions during the debt-ceiling crisis, and his ongoing push for the congressional supercommittee to “go big,” are unintelligible if he isn’t a true believer in the idea that what this economy needs is debt reduction. Anyone who has ever bargained knows that to obtain what you really want, you have to start with a high opening bid. As such, it is irrational to bid low, unless you really don’t want much. President Obama knows all this and he also knows that the current House Republicans will reject any initial offer he makes, no matter how modest it may be. Yet the President’s “grand” bargain was, as far as liberal policy is concerned, a very low bid. Why start off with such a modest proposal unless you actually want less in the end? Such a move, in my mind, only seems comprehensible if we concede that Obama really is less liberal than many on the Left originally hoped.

It was perhaps unavoidable that Barack Obama would ruffle some feathers among liberals, not only because many cast him as something of a political savior (a fact conservatives are fond of pointing out), but also because he was a fairly unknown player in American politics when he was elected to high office. Obama himself openly recognizes this: “I am new enough on the national political scene,” he wrote in 2006, “that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.” So, even now, three years into his presidency, it is difficult to separate out the real from the imaginary. The challenge is magnified by the messiness of American politics, where complex policy decisions are sold to the public in catchphrases and much of the real ideology is submerged. The events of last summer, however, force us to ask again: Who is Barack Obama and what does he stand for?

Fortunately, we aren’t forced to divine the ideas that guide President Obama from his vague campaign promises (HOPE, CHANGE, COMPROMISE) or his actions alone, turning them over like so many tarot cards. No, the President goes a long way towards answering these questions in his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

I have to confess that when the book came out in 2006, I didn’t read it. even though I would go on to support Obama, I thought it was just the latest book to appear in the memoir-manifesto genre. And when I began reading it last summer I was initially inclined to think I had been right. On the surface, the book contains very little that could be described as audacious. As Michael Tomasky noted in a review at the time of the book’s publication, Obama’s arguments on any given issue follow a highly formulaic pattern: The Democrats think this and the Republicans think that. They are both a bit right and a bit wrong. On each issue, Obama blends a few of the ideas found on either side of the partisan divide to produce a Democrat-flavored solution.

My initial instinct about Audacity, however, was wrong. Despite the fairly rigid style in which it is written, the book deserves to be taken seriously. In its most substantive chapters—“Our Constitution” and “Opportunity”—Obama presents a simply stated overview of his political philosophy. These chapters make good on Obama’s professed aim in writing the book, which was not to provide a “unifying theory of American government,” but to offer “some thoughts on the ways that our current political discourse unnecessarily divides us, and my own best assessment … of the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good.”

These words are an apt summary of the two central messages of Audacity, which amount to Obama’s diagnosis and proposed treatment of America’s ills. He argues that Washington today is crippled by partisan gridlock, which he traces back to social upheavals of the Sixties. Obama admits a certain uneasiness about these changes. Although he recognizes that he is the beneficiary of that era, he laments “what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced”; namely, “those shared assumptions—that quality of trust and fellow feeling—that brings us together as Americans.” Obama’s proposed regimen is “a different kind of politics” that will “reflect our lives as they are actually lived.” (If this sounds like Bill Clinton, this should not be surprising; Obama openly praises Clinton’s “Third Way” politics.) His “new” approach favors compromise as the central means for pursuing the common good.

It is tempting to offer reductive, psychological explanations of the value Obama places on compromise, but these explanations are out of place when discussing a clear thinker like Obama. In Audacity, Obama suggests that compromise is the paradigmatic procedural tool enshrined in a Constitution that, in his view, champions a “deliberative democracy” in which people with differing points of view can, through ongoing public discussion, determine how our country is to be run in ever-changing circumstances. This interpretation of our nation’s founding document “sees our democracy not as a house to be built [once and for all], but as a conversation to be had.” Obama thinks this conversation can only aid our pursuit of the common good:

I think we make a mistake in assuming that democratic deliberation requires the abandonment of our highest ideals, or of a commitment to the common good … [The Constitution] offers us the possibility of a genuine marketplace of ideas, one in which the “jarring of parties” works on behalf of “deliberation and circumspection”; a marketplace in which, through debate and competition, we can expand our perspective, change our minds, and eventually arrive not merely at agreements but at sound and fair agreements.

The Constitution promotes the pursuit of the common good, according to Obama, by providing the framework within which our democratic conversation can unfold peaceably. His thought seems to be that if we can find compromises, we shall be able to reestablish the common bonds and assumptions that once held Americans together.

Obama’s call for compromise may infuriate his liberal critics now, but it was once one of the things they admired about him. After eight years with a President who traded in absolutes, members of what Obama calls the “literary class” were refreshed to hear an intelligent person speak thoughtfully about working together to achieve something worthwhile. Like other liberals, I was inclined to trust Barack Obama because, even though I didn’t see eye to eye with him on many of policy issues, I took him to be a person of sound and careful judgment. Indeed, as the intellectual historian James T. Kloppenberg has recently pointed out in his book Reading Obama, one can hear the echoes of some of the best American thinking in the background of Obama’s democratic ideal: John Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness and the pragmatic approach championed by John Dewey and William James.

This was, of course, before we understood that compromise, for Obama, often involves a refusal to prosecute wrongdoing as well as a tendency to appease an increasingly reckless and radical Right. We’d be mistaken, however, to think the problem lies only in the President’s implementation of his ideals, as if he were simply a bad wheeler and dealer. After all, Obama learned to play politics in Chicago and chose battle-hardened advisors like Rahm Emanuel to help him navigate the Capitol. he undoubtedly knows a thing or two about realpolitik. No, if things are falling apart in practice, we’d do well to unearth the fault lines at the ideological level.

The human capacity for rational deliberation can be equally useful in pursuing virtuous and vicious ends: I can mull over how best to help a friend or how to most effectively rob a bank. So it is premature to laud or condemn President Obama’s emphasis on deliberation and compromise without examining the end for which he thinks they should be deployed: the common good. Yet Audacity offers little in the way of specifying what such a good amounts to. For the most part, the goods Obama discusses—faith and family—are private insofar as the modern, pluralist state is concerned. In fact, many of Obama’s statements appear to bolster the libertarian idea that, for the most part, there are few (if any) goods that are best pursued through common effort. He approvingly quotes, for example, Lincoln’s maxim that “we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately.”

The sole exception to this general trend seems to concern the economy, where Obama suggests that the government should take measures to further the accumulation of wealth. In the details, however, Obama’s vision retains its libertarian bent. He claims, for example, that “our Constitution places ownership of private property at the very heart of our system of liberty.” In the debate between Hamilton and Jefferson about finding a just balance between freedom and equality, he sides with Hamilton, who he claims rightly understood the potential of the (supposedly meritocratic) free market: “Industrial and commercial capitalism might lead to greater instability, but it would be a dynamic system in which anyone with enough energy and talent could rise to the top.”

Obama recognizes that in an age of rapid technological advance, education is one of the most important means we have for ensuring our economy remains afloat. We must improve science education to ensure that American workers retain a competitive edge. (In fact, Obama almost always speaks of education in economic terms, which strongly suggests—along with his choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of education—that he sees it as having no other function.) But in the end, Obama suggests that even education will be insufficient in the new economy. He repeats a story that is widely accepted by politicians on both sides of the aisle; namely that while the New Deal was a satisfactory compromise in the Thirties, it no longer suffices in the age of globalization, when workers must content themselves with less. In this vein, Obama openly agrees with Ronald Reagan, concluding:

Reagan’s central insight—that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie—contained a good deal of truth.

Only at the end of his chapter devoted to economic policy does Obama touch on the idea that there might be a problem with the distribution of wealth in this country. His solution is merely to reinstate the pre-Bush tax rates. Obviously, this would do little to slow the slide toward a libertarian economic system. (The income tax rate in this country has been in free fall since the early 1960s when the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent on income exceeding $400,000 a year, or roughly $3 million in today’s money.)

Obama, then, holds a libertarian conception of the common good on every front. His view seems to be that government should, so far as possible, limit itself to enabling individuals to pursue their own private goods. The only thing that might rein in these individual pursuits is Obama’s requirement that the government must satisfy the procedural rules set out in the Constitution. If he thinks the American government should promote a common good beyond this, he doesn’t say much about it in Audacity.

If we want an alternative to Obama’s libertarianism, we would do well to turn to ancient Greece, where questions about the common good stood at the center of moral and political thought. The most pragmatic of the Greek political philosophers, and so perhaps the most pertinent to our contemporary political climate, is Aristotle. Whereas Plato is the original champion of ideal theory—thought about the best possible political arrangement—Aristotle recognizes that political thought must always be constrained by what is attainable. The political scientist, he claims, must “not only study what is best, but also what is possible, and similarly what is easier and more attainable by all.” So although Aristotle marshals many abstract arguments about the common good, he also undertakes an empirical investigation of actual political arrangements. Just as he studied plant and animal specimens for his biological research, as a political scientist he amassed over 158 constitutions from various Greek city-states.

The most fundamental idea in Aristotle’s political framework is that what is good for the state as a whole is also good for the individuals in it. He argues that the best human life is one of distinctly human excellence wherein we act, choose and feel in accordance with our capacity for reason. Only when we lead such a life can we be called “happy” in the sense of truly flourishing. So the goal of any polis must be to create a political system “in which anyone might do best and live a blessedly happy life.”

Aristotle’s thought is radical for the modern reader because he rejects the idea that the common good can be promoted by laissez-faire. Even if the polis were to justly distribute material goods to its citizens, thereby making each of them sufficiently prosperous, in his view this still would not ensure that they led excellent lives. Just as rational deliberation can be used for good or ill, so too can material resources. Only when people become virtuous can they be expected to successfully integrate material goods into an excellent human life.

Aristotle concludes that the polis must actively promote excellence among its citizens. We live distinctively human lives, he argues, only insofar as we are active members of a political community. Although we are human at birth, much of what is important about our humanity—particularly our capacity to direct our lives according to rational deliberation—exists initially as a kind of potential. We can exercise those aspects of our humanity that matter most only if our minds and desires have been properly educated. And we need the polis to be well organized—with good laws and a proper educational system—if we are going to get that kind of training. Only if citizens uniformly receive this kind of moral formation will it be possible for them to lead lives in which they act, choose and feel in accordance with reason. Thus, Aristotle concludes, our individual flourishing as human beings is inseparable from our life together.

The president thinks that the primary ill of American politics is the conflict between political parties, and hence that bipartisanship stands a chance of reinstating a culture of “trust and fellow feeling.” But if Aristotle is right, this story obfuscates the root cause of political strife. For while Aristotle doesn’t think that material prosperity ensures the common good, he repeatedly argues that this good will be unattainable if resources are distributed unjustly. He asserts, for instance, that excessive wealth and poverty weaken the hold of reason on individuals, skewing their desires as a result of need or avarice. And similarly, when there is great inequality among citizens, he suggests that certain violent emotions will be widespread: the rich will be “full of arrogance,” while the poor are “full of envy.”

Aristotle’s most important argument, however, is that an unequal distribution of wealth undermines the possibility of friendship among citizens of the polis. This might sound trivial, but Aristotle takes civic friendship to be the glue that holds the polis together. This sort of friendship requires a general concord of the kind that characterizes people who work together on a common project. (In this case, the project is living the good life together.) As such, Aristotle suggests that when things go well in a polis, “the citizens agree as to their interests, adopt the same policy, and carry their common resolves into execution.” When people differ greatly in learning, power or wealth, on the other hand, various kinds of relationships might be possible—that of teacher and student, patron and beneficiary, for example—but none of these relationships is a proper civic friendship. This is why an unequal distribution of wealth is harmful to the polis. “The result,” Aristotle grimly concludes, “is a polis consisting not of free people but of slaves and masters … nothing is further removed from friendship and political community.” When this happens, there is no hope of cooperatively pursuing the common good.

On Aristotle’s account, conflict between rival political groups is a symptom of inequality. When mutual recognition breaks down in the polis, individuals join rival factions in an effort to reinstate some level of political equality. If inequality grows too severe, these factions can ultimately tear a polis apart. At the most basic level, Aristotle suggests that human beings live in communities in order to secure their basic needs, including their need for friendship. If the polis no longer enables all citizens to meet those needs, conflict between the haves and the have-nots will naturally follow.

If Aristotle is right, Obama will not unite America by compromising with people who support plutocracy. In fact, he will only divide it further. If Obama cannot reverse the trend towards rampant economic injustice, there is little reason to think that political strife will disappear. Ultimately, he may well lead us back to something very much like the periods of unrest that troubled him as a young man.

Obama’s approach to political conflict is quintessentially American. Indeed, it shares a good deal with James Madison’s position in The Federalist. Madison recognizes that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” He denies, however, that the causes of such inequality can ever be removed in a state that grants citizens the right to own property and exercise their basic freedoms. They are intractable elements within such a state, given that it contains citizens of diverse backgrounds and upbringings, and thus “it is vain to say that the enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests.” For this reason, Madison claims we must concern ourselves with the effects of inequality rather than its source. His hope is that in a republic, political leaders will sufficiently reflect (and refine) the views of the majority so as to forestall widespread and violent conflict. Obama’s transpartisan politics, then, fall squarely in the Madisonian tradition.

Central to Madison’s view is the assumption that there must be a trade-off between a robust conception of the common good and the freedom enjoyed by individuals. Defenders of Obama’s libertarian policies might be keen to reject an Aristotelian approach on exactly these grounds. Since individuals differ greatly in their preferences and views of the good, the argument goes, it would be impractical to unite them in the pursuit of a common good. And even if we were to attempt such a feat, we would be forced to infringe on the people’s right to live in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience. Since freedom from ideological hegemony is part of what makes for a good life (both for individuals and for groups), we are better off with a “thin” conception of the common good like the one Obama promotes.

This line of thought should certainly warn against various forms of totalitarianism, making us wary of any conception of the common good that is so robust as to exclude reasonable variation among religious, moral and political viewpoints. Nevertheless, I do not think we should abandon the common good altogether. In fact, I believe that even in the liberal, pluralist West, we have never entirely left behind Aristotle’s desire to promote a certain kind of excellence among citizens. There are few who seriously think that the government should get out of the business of education altogether or that we should eliminate all programs that encourage our shared cultural life. Since the recession, the calls for a more robust form of justice have only become louder; they can now be heard in the streets of New York, Chicago and other major cities. It would seem that a growing number of Americans are no longer content with the claim that justice is secured through the maintenance of a supposedly meritocratic free market. They cannot countenance this claim because their daily lives reveal that it is wrong.

Our reflections on Barack Obama’s political philosophy allow us to consider his actions as President from the proper vantage point. His ideal of deliberative democracy is an appealing alternative to a politics of force, but it is undermined by his libertarian conception of the common good. His good, it would seem, simply isn’t good enough. Without a more robust goal, it is not surprising that the President shows a willingness to sacrifice and even ignore vital government functions in the name of economic prosperity.

This problem, of course, is not unique to our President. I think most Americans would grant that Madison’s assumption contains some truth. In a pluralist society, we must be careful to preserve individual freedoms as we pursue the common good. Finding the appropriate balance is undoubtedly one of the major problems of contemporary politics, and Obama’s unsettling neglect of the common good is merely symptomatic of our general failure to find an adequate solution to it. It is nonetheless clear that we neglect the common good to our own detriment. Over the last three decades, massive amounts of wealth and power have trickled up, not down, as lawmakers turned over more elements of our common life to the supposedly “rational” self-interest of private individuals and corporations. As a result, our political arena has become a place for playing out base and violent passions—making compromise but a vain hope.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1 Many journalists and politicians, including the President, suggest that it makes sense to “reform” these programs, given that they are likely to become insolvent in the future. As Bernie Sanders obsessively points out, Social Security is not going broke. According to a report released by the Economic Policy Institute in January of 2011, while there will be increased pressures on Social Security over the next 75 years, it should remain relatively healthy. Moreover, the shortfalls that are expected to arise could be largely undone by taking simple steps such as removing the income cap on payroll taxes over $106,800. The remainder could be made up for with measures like modest tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, which are broadly supported by the American public. 
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