By Robert A. Vella
One of the focuses of this blog is highlighting the differences between ideological principles and political pragmatism. I contend that neither extreme is desirable at the exclusion of the other, and that each public policy issue must be uniquely treated with respect to its moral and ethical implications as well as the practicality of addressing it. The skillful art of finding the right balance between these two opposing forces is the essence of wisdom and the prominent trait of a truly great leader.
As Barack Obama completes his final year as President, Americans have come to know him as a consummate centrist – a political leader who is resolutely focused on what is reasonably attainable. Grand philosophical stances he has rarely taken, and when he has done so (e.g. gun violence and mass shootings) his speeches carried a strength of emotion but lacked the authoritative conviction necessary to direct a polarized nation. Compared to Lincoln or FDR, who were both unusually adept at balancing principle with pragmatism, Obama has shied-away from exerting his ideological positions (whatever they might be); and, as a consequence, he is commonly seen as a much weaker leader. This heavy tilt towards pragmatism reveals Obama’s basic political identity as a technocrat.
But, technocrats are ill-equipped to respond to moral and ethical crises such as those which afflict America and the world today. The #BlackLivesMatter movement provides an illustrative case-in-point. Regardless of its tone and tactics, which are open to legitimate criticism, the movement is grounded on firm moral footing. Blacks are treated differently and unequally in America. The cause they are fighting for is paramount, not only in terms of human and civil rights, but also in relation to the very health of the country – for a nation divided cannot stand.
A wise and stalwart leader would intuitively recognize the need to provide principled direction. Yet, President Obama seems preoccupied with charting an unstable middle course between what is obviously right and what is so painfully wrong. From NBC News – President Obama Calls Out Black Lives Matter Activists for ‘Yelling’:
At a youth town hall in London on Saturday, the president lauded the movement for effectively bringing attention to racially motivated police violence across the country — but he said the harsh tone activists are using is troubling.
“You can’t just keep on yelling at them and you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position,” Obama said. “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable —that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side.”
Obama’s remarks come after activists from the movement protested at presidential candidates’ campaign events, including Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
Now, I’m not going to ignore the fine legal work the Obama Administration has done to remedy racial injustices throughout the country; however, I’d like to ask the President a question:
How much should black people compromise? Is three-fifths enough?