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The Rise of the Empirical Presidency

By       Message Amy Bernstein     Permalink
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The Rise of the Empirical Presidency

When Americans elected Barack Obama, the conventional wisdom held that the nation had chosen to replace a conservative Republican administration with a mainstream liberal Democratic one. That is not, in fact, an accurate description of what is taking place. A far more dramatic and important paradigm shift is occurring—one that transcends the traditional changeover in political labels.

It is almost pointless to call Obama a Democrat, because he is really something else—an Empiricist. His approach to reasoning and to governing is predicated on evaluating whether a particular course of action seems likely to work—that is, to achieve pragmatically defined ends, such as creating jobs or expanding health insurance coverage. You can disagree with Obama’s ends, but it’s far more important right now to focus on his methods for achieving them. Because it is not always possible to accurately gauge what will actually work, Obama has stated on many occasions that if a course of action appears not to be achieving the desired ends, he will change course and try something else.

This is the very definition of an empiricist—one who bases decisions on observed reality. It is as far as one can get from the Bush system of decision making, which is predicated primarily on a deeply personal and internalized belief system. Everyone, including Obama, has “gut” feelings. The difference is whether this inner radar is allowed to function as the primary guidance system or not. In Bush’s case, virtually every decision of consequence to the nation was guided by his personal radar. Obama is clearly heading down a different path—where gut checks are backstopped by more empirical methods.

This signals a remarkable and historic shift in our mode of governance. Obama is by and large post-ideological, preferring to rely on an approach that will allow him to keep what works and discard what doesn’t work. The traditional to-do list associated with one political party or the other is practically irrelevant under this system. Obama is driven to solve problems; Bush was driven to implement a belief system. There is a world of difference between them. And the different outcomes that may be achieved by these methods is staggering to contemplate.

To get a sense of just how powerful empirical leadership can be, consider a recent column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times (A Dirty Job). Kristof bravely assaults a liberal sacred cow, namely, that sweatshops are an unalloyed evil that trample human rights in poor and developing countries. Not quite, he says. The facts on the ground argue otherwise: Many adults and children in these countries view factory-based labor as a golden opportunity to rise above much dirtier, more dangerous jobs like scavenging garbage heaps. Kristof’s assertion, based on empirical evidence (the exploited laborers themselves) offers a sound starting point for shaping new policies on this issue. Rather than striving to avoid third-world manufacturing altogether, for example, the U.S. ought perhaps to find humane ways to invest in it.

Now take this empirical conclusion and the implications it affords for enlightened policy, and multiply it by, say, 1,000. That gives you an idea of where the Obama Administration may take us.


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Amy L. Bernstein is a full-time executive speechwriter and a former award-winning print journalist, public radio reporter, and editor. Author of two books, one celebrating Baltimore's bicentennial, the other a novel for young teens. She has a (more...)

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