Many observers in the media and ordinary citizens are wondering if Barack Obama, in the wake of the massive rejection of his governing policies in the November 2 congressional elections, will take a page out of Bill Clinton’s playbook and gravitate to the center of the political spectrum. Will Obama moderate his convictions to bring them into line with the resoundingly expressed will of the electorate? We recall that after the defeat of his health care reform package in 1994, Clinton embarked on a process that Dick Morris called “triangulation,” bridging the gap between Democrats and Republicans, swerving from his original intentions to the political center, and thereby ensuring his re-election. Clinton’s change of direction, however, was an act of pure pragmatism that had nothing to do with his hypothetical political or moral beliefs. The point is that it worked.
It would seem highly improbable that Obama will follow suit, and for a very good reason. Like Clinton, Obama is a man without principles, but unlike Clinton he is a man who comes to the presidency with a bundle of hard convictions he will not likely compromise regardless of political consequences. His convictions are not ethical maxims predicated on justice and fairness — in other words, principles — but rote commitments to a formulaic apparatus, that is, political dogmas and speculative precepts derived from a left-wing political philosophy whose track record is one of unrelieved miscarriage.
Moreover, the convictions he espouses have been repudiated by the majority of the American electorate who were at first taken in by his artful dissembling but have gradually come to realize that the “fundamental transformation” of America is not what they want. Regrettably, Obama is not given to reconsideration. There is a lot of talk in the media and on the internet about a “clear message” that has been sent to a president battered in the polls and suffering a midterm electoral checkmate. This is irrelevant. For Obama, there is no such thing as a “clear message” of the sort he has presumably received. There is only the incoherent babbling of dazed and frightened people who have failed to understand the wisdom of his ideas and programs. Using all the means at his disposal, he will almost certainly persist in forcing an unpopular agenda upon an increasingly defiant nation. As Obama promised the left-wing site MoveOn.org, rallying his supporters, “we will just have to work harder. … There were times when folks counted us out and we always came back. The same thing is going to happen over the next two years, and the next six years.” Ipse dixit.
Booker Prize novelist DBC Pierre, author of Lights Out in Wonderland — a most auspicious title in the present context — reflects on the tendency of a panicked cable of goats to charge straight into the face of calamity. Human beings often react in a similar fashion. “The cabling of our ethic,” he says, compels us “to blindly follow a particular idea or notion … heading to disaster.” This is one way to comprehend the misery-inducing behavior of an ideologically cabled president. It seems nothing will deter him — neither pragmatism nor self-interest nor belated enlightenment nor compassion — from pursuing his campaign to remake the nation by accumulating debt, nationalizing banks and industries, redistributing income through various tax strategies, and inflating the size and reach of the federal government.
The problem comes down to this. Obama is not a man of principle but an inflexible ideologue whose premises do not fit the social and political terrain they are meant to restructure. Rather, the country must be made to conform to a pre-existent theoretical construct he is not about to abandon. An ideologue is a man with a system that does not coincide with any durable or feasible world and therefore leads inevitably to distortion and collapse. For the application of rigidly inappropriate concepts to a field of action in which they have no purchase must result in the failure to appraise reality and to invoke its salutary possibilities. On the contrary, a system of a priori rules and postulates imposed on others without regard to the features of an actual topography can only create havoc.
Everything considered, it is better to triangulate than to disfigure. But it is better still to be the kind of leader who, from the beginning, has taken the measure of the nation he or she has been elected to govern and who is distinguished by the possession of moral principles — principles that have universal import and are aligned with a real or plausible world. Principles are not grimly undeviating ideological commitments. The willingness to learn on the job, to listen rather than to merely orate, to assess what is possible, to labor honorably for the general good, and to put the benefit of others above one’s own prefab assumptions, desires, comforts, and unreflected motives are what we mean by principles. Ronald Reagan had them. Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, Michele Bachmann, and a handful of other conservative figures on the current scene appear to have them. Obama does not. He has not provided an example to be emulated. His sole legacy to date is to have brought disorder, misrule, and turmoil into the body politic.
All presidents make mistakes but not all presidents unleash catastrophes. Some, however, seem determined, whether through ignorance, creed, or folly, to sow discord, disrupt the equilibrium of the nation, and weaken its defenses. This is precisely the situation that the majority of Americans have reacted to, delivering a stunning rebuff to a president devoid of principles but bristling with convictions that do not consort with how the world works to best advantage. In the last analysis, there is nothing as dangerous in politics as an unprincipled idealist who addresses not the real world of human nature and concrete social forces but the landscape of his own projected illusions.