Obama prides himself on not being ideological or partisan — of following, as he put it in his first prime-time presidential press conference, a “pragmatic agenda.” But pragmatism is about process, not principle. Pragmatism is hardly a rallying cry for a nation in this much distress, and it’s not a credible or attainable goal in a Washington as dysfunctional as the one Americans watch in real time on cable. Yes, the Bush administration was incompetent, but we need more than a brilliant mediator, manager or technocrat to move us beyond the wreckage it left behind. To galvanize the nation, Obama needs to articulate a substantive belief system that’s built from his bedrock convictions. His presidency cannot be about the cool equanimity and intellectual command of his management style.
That he hasn’t done so can be attributed to his ingrained distrust of appearing partisan or, worse, a knee-jerk “liberal.” That is admirable in intellectual theory, but without a powerful vision to knit together his vision of America’s future, he comes off as a doctrinaire Democrat anyway. His domestic policies, whether on climate change or health care or regulatory reform, are reduced to items on a standard liberal wish list. If F.D.R. or Reagan could distill, coin and convey a credo “nonideological” enough to serve as an umbrella for all their goals and to attract lasting majority coalitions of disparate American constituencies, so can this gifted president.
During the first half of last year, Obama had an extraordinary opportunity to articulate the moral case for his causes, creating public pressure on the opposition not to stand in the way of his goals, and defining the broadest ambitions as the starting point of negotiations. Instead, he gave away concessions, before negotiations ever began, that a recalcitrant opposition has pocketed while stonewalling him on everything anyway, recognizing that he won't make them pay any political price for it. Maybe he can still recapture that moment, I'm not so sure if it's possible any more, but first and foremost, he'll have to want to lead that way in the first place.