Rationalism In Obama


David Brooks worries today about the rationalism – to use an Oakeshottian term – of Obama’s politics:

I fear that in trying to do everything at once, they will do nothing well. I fear that we have a group of people who haven’t even learned to use their new phone system trying to redesign half the U.S. economy. I fear they are going to try to undertake the biggest administrative challenge in American history while refusing to hire the people who can help the most: agency veterans who are registered lobbyists. I worry that we’re operating far beyond our economic knowledge. Every time the administration releases an initiative, I read 20 different economists with 20 different opinions. I worry that we lack the political structures to regain fiscal control.

But David is too fair a thinker to ignore the essential context that Obama is facing, which makes sense of him in the same way that the crisis of 1980 alone makes sense of Reagan. That context is a staggering array of problems that keep vying for urgent attention – arguably the gravest and most intractable set of issues in my lifetime.

The first is a financial crisis which has triggered an economic slump which is intensifying the financial crisis. Given the scale of this, and the long years of debt that make it so much more dangerous than it might have been, I don’t think it’s fair to conflate a practical plan to tackle it in all its aspects with a utopian and rationalist approach to remaking the world. The truth is: the world has already been un-made. Obama has no choice but to think big. Americans understand this, as anyone outside the Washington cable-chatter cocoon would. Although I cannot see through the unknowns any better than David can, it does seem to me that so far, the main criticism of Obama’s plans – on foreclosure, the banks, the stimulus – is that they may not be bold enough. And addressing long-term fiscal health at the same time is not an over-confident over-reach. It’s a recognition of reality. We may not be able to get through the short-term borrowing we need without calming the global markets about long-term fiscal stability.

On foreign policy, it remains simply true that many of the issues are interconnected and resolving them requires a more sophisticated approach than naming three countries "evil" and launching an open-ended, largely botched war on one of them.

Again, if I saw signs that Clinton and Holbrooke and Ross were holding hands and singing kumbaya or drawing up plans for a new League of Nations, I’d share David’s worry. But, er, I don’t. All I see so far is extreme pragmatism – perhaps too extreme – in grappling with the Bush legacy on detention, rendition, torture and the clusterfuck that is Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also undeniable now that addressing the Israel-Palestinian issue is indeed integral to the broader goals of the US. Benign neglect does not seem to me to have succeeded, once the white phosphorus of Gaza has cleared. 

Again: what else would we have them do? The trouble with inheriting a legacy from the most disastrous presidency in modern times is that the scale of the crisis requires a very ambitious response. But if the ambition and size is caused by the nature of the problem – and not by some rationalist utopian fantasy, then Obama has not strayed into the Krugman territory of using this crisis to bring us all into the Promised Land of the Left. He hasn’t crossed any line an Oakeshottian would worry about (even though the national healthcare crew salivating right now really does set off my Burkean alarm bells). He well might – and we should, of course, be vigilant in testing his pragmatic policies by the brutal pragmatic test: do they work as advertized? And could the unintended consequences hurt us down the line?

It’s ridicuously early, of course. When I hear David Gergen talking of perceptions of incompetence, and David Brooks talking of perceptions of technocratic hubris, then I know we are all squinting at something that is not yet really in sight. Give them time. Then give them hell.

(Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty.)