President Obama's first press conference showcased a renewed commitment to action and usefulness and a rejection of ideological word play about government

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 02/10/2009

More than policy details, President Obama's first press conference showcased an aspect of America that  8 years of Bush-era pessimism worked hard to destroy:  American pragmatism.

For those of us who watched Obama, last night, we heard the voice of American pragmatism for a full hour, but few if any of us have much experience stepping back and talking about it.   Decades of Reagan, Bush and now Limbaugh Republicanism created such a toxic environment for American pragmatism that anyone who dared to step in that direction has been ridiculed and silenced.

That ended last night.

What is American pragmatism?  It is a political philosophy rooted in the twin principles of action and usefulness.  "If we take this action, will it be more useful than that action?"  That is the basic question of American pragmatism.

The great American pragmatists, of course, are names that we once held up in this country with great pride, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Abraham Lincoln.

Listening to Obama's press conference, it was strikingly clear that he was speaking in the voice of American pragmatism.  Consider,  for example, this comment that President Obama offered about 21 minutes into the event:

As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress, is that there seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing.

Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think what -- that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.

There are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that -- that tax cut or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project.

But what I've -- what I've been concerned about is some of the language that's been used suggesting that this is full of pork and this is wasteful government spending, so on and so forth.

(link: CNN)

What we hear in this statement is a fundamental concern for action and usefulness, and a deep impatience with political strategies aimed at advancing this or that theory as the goal of policy.  The point of the Recovery Act, in other words, is to bring about useful change, not to advance a system of beliefs for the sake of establishing this or that theory as 'truth.'  What 'concerns' President Obama, in other words, is not just that his bill advances through Congress, but that the actions we must take as a nation not be blocked by a debate that wallows in word play at the expense of usefulness. 

To pass a bill designed to benefit the American public, in other words, President Obama is willing to talk to Republicans about anything that pertains to useful actions, but he is not willing to allow either Republicans to turn the debate into a self-indulgent conversation about belief in government.

The purpose of government in the eyes of American pragmatism is to solve problems by asking what actions will be most useful. To bicker endlessly over the belief in government is to waste a profound amount of energy and time. If a series of actions intended to be useful do not all turn out to be so, then ask the question again:  which actions have been useful?

What we are faced with as a nation is something far more corrosive than an 8-year emphasis on tax cuts or a willingness to give away unregulated public resources to Wall Street.  The real problem posed by Bush-era republicanism is that each time the government takes action to improve the life of citizens, the Republican leadership insists on hamstringing the conversation with useless questions about belief in government, rather than focusing on pragmatics.

But what if that changes?  What if each time a series of programs are put forward we return to them in six months and ask which actions have been most useful instead of throwing up our arms and debating our theory or belief in government?  That change is precisely what Obama intends when he talks of 'change.'

In this second long passage from the press conference, notice once more how Obama makes this point about debating useful action versus hijacking the debate into word play about theories of what government should and should not do.  He makes the point over and over again using the examples of energy policy, healthcare, and education:

Now, maybe philosophically you just don't think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy. I happen to disagree with that; I think that's the reason why we find ourselves importing more foreign oil now than we did back in the early '70s when OPEC first formed.

And we can have a respectful debate about whether or not we should be involved in energy policymaking, but don't suggest that somehow that's wasteful spending. That's exactly what this country needs.

The same applies when it comes to information technologies in health care. We know that health care is crippling businesses and making us less competitive, as well as breaking the banks of families all across America. And part of the reason is, we've got the most inefficient health care system imaginable.

We're still using paper. We're still filing things in triplicate. Nurses can't read the prescriptions that doctors -- that doctors have written out. Why wouldn't we want to put that on -- put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term costs of health care, and create jobs right now?

Education, yet another example. The suggestion is, why should the federal government be involved in school construction?

Well, I visited a school down in South Carolina that was built in the 1850s. Kids are still learning in that school, as best they can, when the -- when the railroad -- when the -- it's right next to a railroad. And when the train runs by, the whole building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching for a while. The -- the auditorium is completely broken down; they can't use it.

So why wouldn't we want to build state-of-the-art schools with science labs that are teaching our kids the skills they need for the 21st century, that will enhance our economy, and, by the way, right now, will create jobs?

For Obama, the Republicans are not trying to debate the economy so much as they are trying to push philosophical word play about the role of government. And so long as they push that useless debate, the American people will not benefit.

And this brings us to the big story that lies behind American pragmatism: the larger purpose of American life.

For decades, now, the Republicans have been telling us that the purpose of American life is to create conditions in the present that allows us to, effectively, go back in time and reclaim a set of moral beliefs that supposedly gave our nation stability in the past. Those moral beliefs, we have been told endlessly, were solid and in tact in the past, but they have fallen apart in the present. Of course, whether or not that Republican claim about moral beliefs in the past is true is not the point. What matters is whether or not we are better off as a nation for having followed that Republican course of action over the past decade. Have the actions we have taken as a nation--by government and by individuals--been useful to us? Have our lives improved as a result of trying to create conditions that allows us to go back and get these supposed moral truths that, in theory, made for such a stable and beneficial American society 'back then.'

No, they have not.

And this, too, was Obama basic pragmatist message in his press conference--and in his inauguration address and campaign stump speech before it. The policies of the past have not been useful to us as the Republicans said they would be. And so, rather than wasting more time with more debate about what is and what is not the right truth to hold about the place of government in our lives, we will simply try different actions that have a better chance at being useful to the greatest number of Americans.

To be deemed 'useful,' the actions of our government must do more than align themselves with a belief. They must demonstrate improvement in the lives of people. And by 'improvement' we mean: the opportunities of individuals must not be less and the conditions of individuals must not be worse than those of their parents. The chance--the possibility of a healthy and secure life must must be equal to or greater than what came before.

How, then, will we know that the economic recovery package designed by Obama is working--Adam Nagourney's question last night at the press conference? We will know because we will see that people's lives are improving:

My initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs. That's bottom line number one, because, if people are working, then they've got enough confidence to make purchases, to make investments. Businesses start seeing that consumers are out there with a little more confidence, and they start making investments, which means they start hiring workers. So step number one: job creation.

The foundation of useful economic policy, in other words, is not that it serves the belief that a market is 'free' if government keeps its hands out of the business of regulation, but whether or not the actions in that policy have resulted in an individual reclaiming up the tools of work. If the actions in the recovery act put people back to work, then it will have been useful.

In this note, Obama and Biden alike have emphasized that pragmatic leadership begins with a very different opening premise than the ideological word play of the Bush-era. Whereas Bush told us that the priority was the ideology, and then defended that ideology at all cost, Obama is telling us that the priority is usefulness and so we must expect constant re-evaluation and fine-tuning as we go forward.

In a pragmatic form of leadership, the executive never stops asking: "Has this action been useful?" Actions that have not been useful are revised or discarded, actions that have been useful are amplified and applied more broadly.

What a different country it will be, if Obama's emphasis on American pragmatism goes forward. It will be a country of achievement, instead of ideological positioning.

In the meantime, individual Americans and the media must step up and do their part to reclaim the spirit of pragmatism maligned so relentlessly by two terms of George W. Bush as president. In a country where pragmatism is attacked in the name of ideology, little if anything gets done. Elected officials stuck in the Bush-era will remain forever spectators rather than actors. But in a country rallied again to pragmatism, our leaders become the driving agents of useful action.

We have waited long and hard for pragmatism to return.  Now that it is here again, Americans everywhere should reclaim it with pride.

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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