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Sounds Great, But What Does He Really Mean?

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By Alec MacGillis
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Last week, President Obama told Sen. Orrin Hatch, the veteran Utah Republican, that he would appoint a "pragmatist, not a radical," to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

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The assurance was hardly necessary. After all, everything Obama does is pragmatic. His adviser David Axelrod let it be known just after the election that Obama was a "pragmatist and a problem solver," which was a good thing, because, as Axelrod had said shortly before the election, "people are in a pragmatic mood, not an ideological mood." When Obama introduced his national security team, he declared that "they share my pragmatism about the use of power." And as he recently told the New York Times, the same goes for his economic policy, where "what I've been constantly searching for is a ruthless pragmatism."

Ruthless pragmatism! It sends shivers up the spine. But what does it mean, really, to have a "pragmatic" president?

Very different things in different arenas, it turns out. On some issues, such as tax policy, Obama's invocation of pragmatism shrewdly frames an egalitarian agenda. On some social issues, such as stem cell research, pragmatism means settling on a middle course to avoid distracting battles on lesser priorities; and on thorny questions such as how to handle detained terrorism suspects, pragmatism means a search for expedient solutions that can seem at odds with the president's principled rhetoric.

Since his start in the Illinois legislature, calling Obama pragmatic has been a handy way of capturing his conciliatory tone, his disavowal of shopworn solutions and his willingness to bargain with opponents. But the more he and his team use the term to describe his politics -- the recent 100 days coverage was chock full of the P-word -- the less useful it becomes, and the more it seems like a way to deflect questions about what he's trying to accomplish.

The fault hardly lies with the White House alone. The media thrive on labeling those they cover, and "pragmatism" has become the easy answer with a politician like Obama, who disdains categories. Reporters have embraced the term as a contrast to the "ideological" Bush administration. And for many Beltway pundits, calling Obama a pragmatist allows them to praise him without relinquishing their centrist credentials.

Across the political spectrum, though, there is grumbling over the label. After the election, former Bush adviser Pete Wehner wrote that the word does not show where Obama would take a stand. "When gale-force political winds hit, pragmatists, because they do not have deep-seated convictions, rarely hold shape," he wrote. "A pragmatist avoids hard choices. A great leader makes them."

On the left, the Nation's Chris Hayes argued that Obama supporters were embracing pragmatism after incorrectly concluding that Bush had struggled not because he had the wrong ideology, but because he had an ideology, period. "Obama may [say] he's interested in 'what works,' " Hayes wrote, "but what constitutes 'working' . . . is impossible to detach from some worldview and set of principles."

Pragmatism has distinguished roots. William James and John Dewey promoted it as a philosophy that elevated knowledge gained through action over theory and concepts. Obama has been pragmatic in this sense when it comes to, say, the financial crisis, embracing trial and error and resisting the more systemic solution of nationalizing banks. But pragmatism fails as a political definition, says Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton's labor secretary, because it describes how a politician moves toward a goal, not the goal itself.

"It's possible to be ruthlessly pragmatic in terms of how you get to an objective," Reich said, "but the phrase is nonsensical in terms of picking an objective."

That leaves us searching for the intent and belief beneath each "pragmatic" approach so far.

Start with economic policy. Here, pragmatism can serve to obscure or repackage the ideological conviction at the heart of Obama's program, that growing income inequality is destructive and that government must try to reduce it. He flashed ire over capitalism's excesses early in the campaign. "Our free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it," he said in a fall 2007 speech. Obama's plans add up to a clear shift toward a more egalitarian system -- a return to Clinton-era marginal tax rates for the rich, a $787 billion stimulus plan that in many areas is targeted to those most in need, and lower deductions for wealthy taxpayers' mortgage interest and charitable gifts.


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