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 non-ideological approach to politics. To most of those listening, it 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. “Whatever works” is less a vision of the public sector’s proper role than a placeholder for someone who has yet to figure out what he thinks that role should be.
Jonathan Chait, at the Plank, doesn’t let on whether he agrees with Weisberg’s argument and his suggestion that Obama use Lincoln (how original!) as an example. But he’s doesn’t do much to analyse Weisberg’s point, either.
Which quickly reminded me about a piece on FDR from this month’s New York Review of Books, written by Russell Baker. Baker, and the author’s whose books he discusses, makes pains to emphasize the lack of political ideology FDR brought with him to the White House in 1933.
Just like Obama, FDR promised quick action — and a good deal of experimentation to see what solution would work best — on the economic crisis facing the nation:
Whether experiment interests Obama as it interested FDR is a deep question since, for one thing, FDR looked to experimentation to find out what his own philosophy would be. Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor and the first woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet, later wrote that he had no coherent philosophy to guide his actions. Often, it appears, he had very little knowledge either. Raymond Moley, his chief policy adviser during the Hundred Days, played a major role in the 1933 banking crisis and afterward said he doubted that “either Roosevelt or I could have passed an examination such as is required of college students in elementary economics.”
“The notion that the New Deal had a preconceived theoretical position is ridiculous,” Perkins later said. “The pattern it was to assume was not clear or specific in Roosevelt’s mind, in the mind of the Democratic party, or in the mind of anyone else.”
Uncertainty on this scale is hard to imagine in the highly organized and obviously cerebral Obama. Yet he seems much like Roosevelt in not being wedded to any ideological position. FDR in his campaign had promised “to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Obama makes Democratic liberals fidgety because of a pragmatic tendency that might prompt him to settle for compromised programs rather than support traditional progressive ideas that require a terribly high price to enact. In his readiness to try to find what will work, he is like Roosevelt.
Yet Weisberg doesn’t discuss any of these comparisons. He sticks to praising New Deal program, without digging into the same details Baker does to discover that FDR wasn’t ideological at all. And we can hardly argue that the New Deal (well, okay, Republicans can argue, but we know they’re wrong) wasn’t a great thing for America.
Personally, I would rather see pragmatism and experimentation than know that Obama is adhering slavishly to one ideology or another. We just had a president who did that for eight years. Enough already.