The Obama presidency has been characterized by a refined sense of impossibility. A kind of suffocation sets in when a man of power floats carefully clear of all unorthodox stimuli and resorts to official comforters of the sort exemplified by Panetta. As the above partial list of the saved and the sacked shows, the president lives now in a world in which he is certain never to be told he is wrong when he happens to be on the wrong track. It is a world where the unconventionality of an opinion, or the existence of a possible majority against it somewhere, counts as prima facie evidence against its soundness.
So alternative ideas vanish -- along with the people who represent them. What, then, does President Obama imagine he is doing as he backs into one weak appointment after another, and purges all signs of thought and independence around him? We have a few dim clues.
A popular book on Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, seems to have prompted Obama to suppose that Lincoln himself "led from behind" and was committed to bipartisanship not only as a tactic but as an always necessary means to the highest good of democracy. A more wishful conceit was never conceived; but Obama has talked of the book easily and often to support a "pragmatic" instinct for constant compromise that he believes himself to share with the American people and with Lincoln.
A larger hint may come from Obama's recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism, where a sentence in the president's own voice asserts: "We face the world as it is, but we will also pursue a strategy for the world we seek." If the words "I face the world as it is" have a familiar sound, the reason is that they received a trial run in Obama's 2009 Nobel Prize speech. Those words were the bridge across which an ambivalent peacemaker walked to confront the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King with the realities of power as experienced by the leader of the only superpower in the world.- Advertisement -
Indeed, Obama's understanding of international morality seems to be largely expressed by the proposition that "there's serious evil in the world" -- a truth he confided in 2007 to the New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, and attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr -- combined with the assertion that he is ready to "face the world as it is." The world we seek is, of course, the better world of high morality. But morality, properly understood, is nothing but a framework for ideals. Once you have discharged your duty, by saying the right words for the right policies, you have to accommodate the world.
This has become the ethic of the Bush-Obama administration in a new phase. It explains, as nothing else does, Obama's enormous appetite for compromise, the growing conventionality of his choices of policy and person, and the legitimacy he has conferred on many radical innovations of the early Bush years by assenting to their logic and often widening their scope. They are, after all, the world as it is.
Obama's pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order -- any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects. You must stay in power in order to go on "seeking." Therefore, in "the world as it is," you must requite evil with lesser evil. You do so to prevent your replacement by fanatics: people, for example, like those who invented the means you began by deploring but ended up adopting. Their difference from you is that they lack the vision of the seeker. Finally, in the world as it is, to retain your hold on power you must keep in place the sort of people who are normally found in places of power.- Advertisement -
David Bromwich writes on civil liberties and America's wars for the Huffington Post. A TomDispatch regular, as well as contributor to the New York Review of Books, his latest essay, "How Lincoln Explained Democracy," appeared recently in the Yale Review .
Copyright 2011 David Bromwich