Some of the confusion stems from Obama’s own strategy of presenting himself as a postpartisan figure. A few weeks ago, I joined him on a flight from Orlando to Chicago and began our conversation by asking about his economic approach. He started to answer, but then interrupted himself. “My core economic theory is pragmatism,” he said, “figuring out what works.”
This, of course, is not the whole story. Invoking pragmatism doesn’t help the average voter much; ideology, though it often gets a bad name, matters, because it offers insight into how a candidate might actually behave as president.
I wonder if Obama's read his share of John Dewey, Jane Addams, and William James. His approach to politics certainly sounds like it.
Pragmatism (by which I mean a particular intellectual movement developed primarily in the US between the Civil War and World War II, and not a willingness to sacrifice principle on the altar of short-term gain), as articulated by Dewey, Addams, and James, is built around two key ideas. First, ideas are tools, not absolute truths. Like tools, ideas will be useful in some situations, and not useful in others, and it is this usefulness by which we evaluate them. Also like tools, ideas can be improved and replaced as better, more effective tools are developed. Second, progress comes from honestly examining the successes and failures of previous attempts. If an idea has worked well in the past, then it's worthwhile to try it again in similar situations. But no idea is perfect, and so it's equally worthwhile to try other possibilities. Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of particular proposals -- whether in philosophy or public policy -- is how we develop new proposals, that enjoy as many of the strengths and as few of the weaknesses of its predecessors as possible. Both components combined lead to an opennesses and respect for ideological opponents -- they're the ones who are best situated to identify flaws with our own proposals -- and a willingness to experiment with radical and untested theories.
And Obama has demonstrated these two features of pragmatism again and again. His willingness to appear at a conservative evangelical megachurch, for example, and seriously and honestly answer their questions shows that he cares about engaging with those who radically disagree with his political views. Similarly, his admission that the Reaganite critique of the bureaucratic welfare state was partly right. He doesn't see conservatives as the enemy, to be ignored and shouted down; rather, a thoughtful exchange between liberals and conservatives helps improve the views of both sides. His market-based government initiatives, such as his health care plan and the auction-based cap-and-trade system, can be viewed as the product of such thoughtful exchanges between liberals and conservatives (or, in these cases, welfare liberals and libertarians), and also as the sort of radical and untested theory with which pragmatists enjoy experimenting.