By Robert A. Vella
In his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama reiterated the pleas for bipartisanship he has made frequently since taking office. He understands all too well that the cultural and political polarization which have seized the American nation more tightly than at any time since the Civil War are inherently dangerous. But, his calls have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. Why? Have Americans become significantly more unreasonable in recent decades. Yes, that’s probably true; however, Americans’ unreasonableness is only a symptom and not the cause of a far larger problem.
The times we’re living in are dominated by existential threats and uncertainties unprecedented in human history. The world has gotten too big, too complex for our obsolete economic and political systems to manage. The specters of climate change, regional conflict, institutional corruption, and social stratification loom large over the dwindling prospects for relative peace and prosperity. People everywhere are apprehensive about the future. Human beings in a state of high anxiety do not act rationally nor reasonably. Simply asking them to ‘calm down” doesn’t work. Leaders must offer viable, concrete solutions to alleviate the public’s fears. Obama’s ineffectual appeals for bipartisanship fall woefully short of that need.
Those American presidents who successfully negotiated the nation through its most stressful periods – namely, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – quickly abandoned the hope of bipartisanship when it became clear that such cooperation was impossible. Instead, they chose to take the country where it didn’t necessarily want to go by employing the power of moral assertiveness. “Honest Abe” first condemned the practice of slavery, and then committed himself to abolishing it. FDR, faced with the worst economic depression in U.S. history, openly challenged the aristocratic sensibilities of his Republican opposition.
See this Truthout op-ed by The Daily Take Team and The Thom Hartmann Program – Obama’s Last State of the Union and the Myth of Bipartisanship
Some have observed that Obama is not that strong of a leader, and that it is unfair to compare him with the likes of Lincoln and FDR. Fair enough, no other American president comes close to those two exalted figures with the possible exception of George Washington. But, Obama’s inability/unwillingness to drive the nation boldly through this new stormy sea reflects his political inclinations as much or more than it does his leadership qualities.
First and foremost, Barack Obama is a pragmatist. For this reason, we must separate his political persona from his personal ideology. In the case of a true ideologue, like Ronald Reagan, no such differentiation was necessary. What you saw from “The Gipper” as a politician was pretty much who he was as a person. Both friend and foe alike respected Reagan’s integrity. In contrast, Obama has garnered a less respectful image from his enemies and from his supporters.
In addition to his pragmatism, Obama is also a technocrat. He believes in objectively-derived solutions for all resolvable problems, and is more concerned with obtaining specific results than he’s concerned about the processes used to achieve those results. Problems deemed irresolvable are simply not acted upon other than being addressed through rhetorical statements. Had Obama faced the issue of slavery as Lincoln did, he never would have risked so much to abolish it. Similarly, Obama never would have been so forceful as FDR in fighting America’s systemic Depression Era inequalities – a fact evidenced by his modest reforms following the 2008 financial crisis. However, Obama has been quite brazen in his push for so-called “free-trade” agreements (e.g. the Trans-Pacific Partnership) because he knew that the political influence of big money would trump the democratic pressures of populism. The TPP was a calculated maneuver, and it exposed Obama’s acceptance of corporatism.
While its short-term advantages are apparent, pragmatism eventually incurs serious long-term costs. America under President Obama is a more divided nation, its political system more dysfunctional, its federal bureaucracies more ineffective, its judicial system more criticized, its law enforcement agencies more corrupted, and its lines between the haves and haves-not more divergent. Just as the amorality of capitalism is propelling the civilized world toward ecological ruin economically, the short-sided pragmatism of technocracy and corporatism are doing the same politically. Sometime in the not too distant future, this will be Obama’s ultimate legacy.