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What Obama Isn't Saying

The apolitical politics of progressivism.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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What Obama Isn't Saying

"I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”

The words are those of President Barack Obama speaking to Congress on health care reform on September 9, 2009. They contain the secret of his appeal—and the cause of his first-year failure.

His appeal from the first has been to be beyond ordinary politics. Ordinary politics is partisan politics, and to be beyond it is to be nonpartisan or, as sophisticates say, postpartisan. Obama has the cool of a nonpartisan, quite unlike the late Edward Kennedy, who was a paragon of partisan heat and sweat. But beyond politics is not just a mood, it’s a place and a situation. Obama’s aspiration, the goal of his politics, is to put the country in a situation that no longer requires parties, when at last partisan rhetoric has accomplished its task, advocacy is inapt, sympathy and zeal are no longer needed, and postpartisan cool is correct.

Postpartisan cool is not, however, the mere sign of an intellectual fad such as postmodern relativism. One can see Obama’s aspiration in the first Democratic president, Thomas Jefferson, who founded not only the Democratic party but also the idea of party government in America. After forming the first publicly avowed party against the Federalists, he proceeded to announce in his first Inaugural Address that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” “Republicans” meant Democratic-Republicans, later Democrats. Yet the best word to describe Obama is progressive, for -nonpartisanship in politics is inherent in the idea of progress.

What every progressive wants is to put the particular issue he espouses beyond political dispute. Obama wanted, and as his first State of the Union address showed still wants, to put health care beyond politics so that he can be the last president to be concerned with it. He did concede in that speech “philosophical differences” between the parties, “that will always cause us to part ways.” But he did not say what these differences are and seemed to assume that they would only infect “short-term politics” by serving the ambitions of party leaders. True leadership in Republicans would require them to cooperate in the reform despite their ambitions and their philosophy. Once the bill is enacted, health care need only be administered by experts whose main task will be to adjust (i.e., expand) its extent and to cover its costs. The principle will have been decided. It becomes an entitlement that is no longer open to political controversy; it is secure from second thoughts prompted by reactionaries.

But what is the principle? Obama acts and speaks as if there were no question of principle, but of course there is one, and it is perfectly obvious to the public: Should the government take over health care or should it be left to the private sphere? A government takeover does not require the single-payer system of Canada and Britain; it follows easily enough from the government’s guarantee of health care to all. This general guarantee is quite different from regulation or particular requirements on private parties because it gives the government responsibility for the result and permits, even demands, that it interfere to make health care available to all. “Available to all” is a phrase that at the least creates pressure to make the best health care equally available. This is government takeover in principle if not in administration—which is not to say that a decentralized administration would make no difference.

Government takeover or not is the issue at stake, but Obama has attempted to blur it. He says that the question is not whether government is big or small but whether it “works.” This is manifest evasion, as it can work either way and the question is which is better. Obama admitted that he could have done a better job with rhetoric, but at the same time he implied that he had been defeated only by rhetoric. In fact, it was not he but his Republican opponents who posed the issue of principle, for Obama was looking ahead beyond the passage of the health care bill to the time when it would no longer be disputed. He advanced the end to the beginning and middle of the process, as if there was little or nothing to be debated, only how the nonpartisan end was to be accomplished. For example, the “public option” of government health insurance was sold as an item of consumer choice as if it were quite comparable to private insurance while at the same time serving as the standard for such choice, to establish what is good enough and cheap enough for all. Instead of raising the issue of government vs. private control, this nonpartisan strategy made government control appear to be another option in the health insurance market rather than regulator of the market.

One might call this sort of governing rational administration or rational control. It is government directed by reason that does not appeal to reason but rather to subrational motives that will lead people to do what is rational without their quite understanding what they are doing. An appeal to reason would be a straightforward argument in favor of the principle of government control of health care, but this is thought to be too divisive and too demanding to succeed. So, rather than espouse the principle, Obama has evaded it, and done his best to keep attention focused on the result. The result is described in terms of present benefits made cheaper and more secure, with no attempt to explain how health care as a whole might look and feel when controlled by the government. It might, after all, be enhanced by a new sense of community—which is the benefit put forward by advocates of straightforward, single-payer government control. But to do this, Obama would have to argue against opponents of government control. They will say they cannot believe we will not suffer when health care is managed by bureaucrats, who like children want to touch everything with their sticky hands. There is too much risk in a debate of principles. You may wake up more opponents than you gain converts.

Obama has in his White House a Harvard law professor, Cass Sunstein, who recently coauthored a book that sets forth the idea and some techniques of rational administration. The book is entitled Nudge, and it shows how people can be nudged to make a rational choice when they cannot be openly persuaded to do so; for example, children in a school cafeteria might by careful placement of choices be gotten to select grapefruit rather than marshmallow. Similarly but on a grander scale, Obama wants to nudge the American people to approve the health care that is rational for them to choose.

But he has so far failed. The reason, fundamentally, can be found in our constitutional form of government. Rational administration is more suited to monarchy than to republics. The classical exposition of the idea of governing by reason through human passions is in the political theory of Thomas Hobbes, who favored monarchy over a republic. The classical demonstration of how rational administration operates is in Tocqueville’s book on the Ancien Régime, which shows how administrators of the French monarchy—particularly Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin—made it dominant by using reason without ever arguing principle. 

Obama is not our king. But he uses the monarchical branch of our republic without embarrassment to project the nonpartisan image of a monarch. He has not been a strong president; he has deferred to Congress, perhaps to his cost. But he likes the aura of monarchy and uses it skillfully to transcend partisan argument. He lets us know that he admires Abraham Lincoln, yet his speeches could not be more different from Lincoln’s in respect to argument. Lincoln used argument to transcend momentary feelings. Obama avoids it by recourse to vacuous words like “change” and “hope,” never saying toward what or for what.

The Constitution, however, maintains a separation of powers that allows and facilitates opposition to the majority. In this case Republicans, prompted by tea party activists, were induced to give voice to their principles and thus give substance to resistance that might otherwise have seemed a mere defense of the status quo. For, in fact, most Americans are satisfied with their health care, and they can easily conclude that they have more to lose than to gain from “reform.” The Democrats found themselves in the strange position of denouncing generous health care insurance, often secured by unions who support them, as “Cadillac plans.” Hypochondriacs they must be who dare to desire better health care than Big Government is prepared to provide them. Let’s tax them! Here was a vivid demonstration of the progressive principle in deed even as it shied away from expression.

We shall see whether Obama is goaded into arguing the principle behind his health care plan (and his entire administration, for that matter). He understands that his principle prospers best when it is not enunciated. His politics is apolitical; it wants to put an end to politics. It considers its measures to be progressive, and progress to be irreversible. Only through this conception can one recognize, and understand, the pretentiousness of wanting to be the last president to take up health care.

An analogy of partisan politics to athletics may be helpful. A Harvard fan like me always wants to defeat Yale but at the same time always wants to defeat a worthy opponent. It’s a contradictory desire in principle because a worthy opponent will sometimes win. But in practice one learns to lose. Someone might object that to win an election is more important than to win a game. To which I respond: Maybe so, but it is more important to continue to have elections than to win one of them. Next to liberty of the mind, there is no more important liberty than political liberty. This means that no partisan victory is permanent and that we shall always return to different versions of the same questions. Progress can never make political liberty obsolete by solving the problems that we contend over. Those who want to put an issue like health care “beyond politics” simply want an imposed political solution to their liking.

In these pages recently, James Ceaser made the argument that Obama is inspired by the religion of humanity (see “The Roots of Obama Worship,” January 25, 2010). The desire to act on behalf of humanity betrays impatience with the contentiousness of politics within nations, where life is always both inspired and bounded by partisan and national loyalties. Over time the devotees of progressive politics discover that they can do away with domestic political differences only through a globalization that does away with national differences. That is why multiculturalism—which is today’s downsized term for the religion of humanity—is both a domestic and a foreign policy. 

Obama’s opponents sometimes dismiss his nonpartisanship as just a cynical mask for his progressive partisanship. But I agree with James Ceaser that Obama’s profession to be beyond politics is essential to his politics and must be taken seriously. To take it seriously one must find an answer to it. What is it in human beings that makes some of them love progress more than liberty and makes others love liberty more than progress?

 

Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.


 

 

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