Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama's Pragmatism

President Obama has annoyed many Americans (including me) by reversing his previous decision to release more photographs of American abuse of military captives. On second thought, I believe this exception to a policy of transparency is sound.

Politics is the art of the possible. Very few principles are absolute, not even freedom of speech. We are not permitted to shout "fire" in a crowded theater.


Reasonable people will screen every policy choice on the basis of cost/benefit analysis, taking all relevant factors into account. This is pragmatism.

Making important policy decisions solely on the basis of previously declared "principles" is ideological Russian roulette. America is not a suicide pact, although extremists would have it so.

The political danger for Obama is not that he is pragmatic but that he may become just too full of himself. As many have said, "the only thing I can't resist is temptation." He will be wrong now and then because cost/benefit analysis depends upon many fallible judgments. That can't be helped. Being seduced by sycophants and euphoria is something else: powerful and deadly hubris.

Is he still innocent of hubris? Probably not and it is better to call him on it now than to let it develop further. At the recent White House Correspondents' dinner he told the audience that his first 100 days were so successful that he would finish his second 100 days in 72 days. That's a good piece of satirical humor but then he added that on the 73rd day he would rest.

That last part fails the test of pragmatism. It does not add substantially to the joke but it steps on the toes of a great many Bible lovers. In the days of the prophets it might have gotten him stoned to death. One does not have to be a Biblical fundamentalist to see that the humorist is being carried away by his own cleverness. It should have been edited out.

Obviously, there are many more substantive issues on which President Obama can and will be criticized. On the other hand, the character of the man who occupies the office of the president is very important and it should never be above criticism.

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