Alex Massie

Obama’s Pragmatism Is A Strength and His Weakness

Text settings

James Joyner has a good round-up of liberal disappointment with Barack Obama's oil-spill televised address last night and Jonathan Bernstein's take seems measured and sensible to me. So does Ross Douthat's since Ross points out, correctly, that the President couldn't win, not least because he's supposed to "take control" of a political problem that cannot be solved politically and, in any case, is not the President's to control in any practical sense. As Ross summarises matters:

[O]f course everybody saw through these rhetorical maneuvers, and nobody was satisfied. The speech was attacked from the right because it talked too much about green energy (see Clive Crook, for instance, and Jonah Goldberg and Byron York) instead of explaining how we’re going to plug the leak, and it was attacked from the left because it didn’t talk nearly enough about green energy and kicking our addiction to oil (see James Fallows and Ezra Klein and the talking heads on MSNBC, among many others). It was attacked for thinking too big and for thinking too small. It was attacked for being too hard on BP and too soft on BP. And to add insult to injury, it even inspired Slate’s Daniel Gross to compare Obama unfavorably (well, sort of) to George W. Bush.

So: a Can't Win situation and, consequently, the kind of event the White House can't have been pleased to hold. But the people - and their tribunes in the media - have demanded that the President do something and since BP can't be pressured into fixing the damn thing more quickly the President becomes the guy who is supposed to produce a brigade or two of rabbits with which to clean up the Gulf of Mexico and the political mess in Washington.

Still, politically speaking it's clear that Obama's approach to an energy or cap-and-trade bill is that he's open to any kind of bill so long as it's a bill that can pass. There's an obvious comparison that can be drawn with the White House's approach to health care reform. Then too the administration's failure to "take a lead" angered some of its more ardent supporters and, the argument went, left everyone unsure of what the White House really wanted.

The pragmatism of this approach is its strength, not least because it allows the administration to claim victory regardless of the detail of what eventually emerges from the Congressional sausage-factory but it's also an approach that has its weaknesses. The White House's elevation of pragmatism minimises the costs and consequences of defeat but it also reduces the value of victory when it's not obvious that the terms of that victory are actually really what the administration wanted all along.

But that's the nature of this Presidency: ambitious yet blame-averse. Unavoidably there's a tension between these desires but it's hard to avoid the sense that the Obama White House often plays not to lose rather than to win. That's not necessarily ignoble but it's also not quite what many people thought, perhaps mistakenly, they were voting for.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternational