Friday, January 30, 2009

O-ba-MA! O-ba-MA!

This can be thought of as a footnote to the preceding since what was in that post raised the idea of this one.

Okay, the Obama administration is 10 days old and there have been some mixed reviews. He has done some good things or perhaps made some improvements would be a more accurate description, including supporting and signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act and, word has it, planning
to sign an untold number of executive orders that are friendly to organized labor
at a White House event with labor leaders later today.

But still there are dark clouds and O-ba-ma! could easily turn into Uh-oh-ba-ma! Last week, my sometimes-debate partner Tgirsch over at Lean Left posted "a question for the cynics" about Obama:
What would you have Obama do that:

1. You expect him not to do.
2. You think he has a prayer of getting Congress behind him (if Congressional involvement is needed).
3. Would be supported by a majority of the American public, or at least a very large minority.
In my answer I said that
the structure of the question is, hopefully unintentionally, extremely restrictive. Put a different way, I’m being asked to name something that I want Obama to do, which already has widespread, even majority, public support, and which already has at minimum sufficient support in Congress to build on - but which he would refuse to do anyway.

Something about camels and the eye of a needle comes up here. Did we elect Obama to make changes or merely to endorse what is already popular?

However, I will suggest a few that meet criteria #1 and at least one of the two others:

1. He will not withdraw all troops from Iraq.
2. He (watch the construction here) will not not escalate in Afghanistan.
3. He will not investigate Bush administration crimes relating to national security and Constitutional rights.
4. He will not undo the “Protect America Act” (the changes to FISA) - and, since doing so would require Congressional action, I’ll add that neither will he foreswear the use of the expanded powers it provided.
5. He will not seek to reverse the hideous 2005 bankruptcy law.
6. He will not require of corporations that they provide detailed accounts of how they spent their TARP money before they can get any more and he will not require such detailed accounts from new applicants.
7. He will not, in the pursuit of a few more GOPper votes, refuse to capitulate to demands that the proposed stimulus package focus more than it has on tax cuts and less than it has on spending to create jobs.

That’s enough for now; I’m sure I’ll think of more.
Tgirsch subsequently said the restrictive nature was deliberate.
It comes down to a fundamental difference in philosophy[, he said,] and it has nothing to do with liberal/conservative. It has to do with pragmatism/idealism. There’s room for both, of course, but I slide a lot more toward the pragmatism end of the scale than most of the others in this comment thread.
I replied that
I think it likely that we would not be far apart on what we think is achievable at the present moment. It’s just that in any political fight, not just elections but any political fight, there is what you want and what you will settle for.

I maintain that if you start out shooting for what you’ll settle for, at the end of the day you’ll always wind up with less and too often get into “get worse more slowly” territory.

So with Obama now, I don’t think we should concern ourselves with what will pass Congress or is already popular but with what we want done. Then we can, if necessary, negotiate back to what we’ll settle for - and maybe a good deal more. ...

We should focus on widening the debate, getting more options on the board, before we start saying “X is the best we can get.”
My main "idealistic" objection to "pragmatism" is that all too often being "pragmatic" winds up meaning being so focused on what you can get now that you forget where you were trying to go in the first place. My own notion of being pragmatic is pretty much the reverse: to make the dream central and ask what best advances the chances for that dream. It's like the old story about the stone worker who hammers at a block 99 times without visible effect only to have it shatter on the 100th: The true pragmatist would have given up at the beginning because it wouldn't appear that any progress could be made right now; the true idealist would say "this is the only way the block is going to be broken" and keep at the practical work of hammering.

Just about a week and a-half ago, I quoted a speech I gave oh my word over 24 years ago in which I expressed the same idea a different way, urging listeners to
hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse. [Be] steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but never forget just where that work is supposed to take them.
Ultimately, I suppose it can be said that the best idealists need to be practical but the best pragmatists don't need an ideal - which is unfortunate and can easily turn pragmatists into mere technocrats, concerned less with changing the system than with running it efficiently, or, as Obama supporters (no more than members of his administration) put it, avoiding the dreaded "ideologues" in favor of "competent people" without thought to just what end it is that those people are supposed to be working toward.

Anyway, getting away from this lengthy digression and back to what prompted this post, which was not to re-hash some pragmatism-idealism dispute, and to why it can be a sort of footnote to the preceding: I've thought of a number eight and a number nine for the list.
8. He will not as part of the banking industry bailout require changes in the management or the business practices of the banks and investment houses. (Bonus givebacks do not count as "changes" in this context.)
And the one related to the preceding post,
9. He will not seek to have the Military Commissions Act revoked. Amended, yes, but not revoked - and among the amendments will not be one to remove the stripping away of habeas corpus rights.
I invited Tgirsch to keep a record of my predictions in the hope that at some point he will be able to throw it in my face because it turned out I was wrong. I would rarely be happier to be wrong and the more times I'm wrong on this list, the happier I will be.

Footnote: The Paycheck Fairness Act, a wider pay-equity bill than the Lilly Ledbetter Act, has passed the House. Senate action is predicted by spring.

Another Footnote: You'll notice that there's nothing in the items relating to the banking industry that make any reference to any form of democratic socialism or public ownership of the industry or any parts of it. ("Ownership" that consists of "we pick up the debts but you folks keep running things" is not "ownership" for this purpose.) I didn't bother as that is just too far outside the realm of possibility.

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