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White House Photos: Pete Souze

In two previous essays on "Political Wisdom" I dealt with the topic generally. The first was much longer, amply footnoted, and considered how it applied to both elected officials and the electorate. The second and shorter essay summarized many of the findings of the first and dealt primarily with the virtues and values required of a politically wise president. The present essay also summarizes a longer, more scholarly essay, this time on President Obama’s political wisdom. No political leader exercises such wisdom all the time. Even our greatest presidents, like Lincoln, sometimes acted unwisely. So the primary question is not whether President Obama has always acted wisely (or unwisely) during his first three years in office, but the extent to which he possesses the values necessary for political wisdom and has displayed it.

Following the lead of Aristotle and others, I have stressed the importance of seeking the common good as the main goal of political wisdom and identified the following virtues and values as important ones for a wise leader to possess: ethical realism, compassion, empathy, humility, a sense of humor, tolerance, a willingness to compromise, temperance, self-discipline, passion, courage, and creativity. To properly balance and prioritize them in any particular situation, he (and perhaps someday she) also needs practical wisdom or prudence. Finally, skills such as being a good selector of subordinates (like Cabinet officials) and communicating effectively are helpful if political wisdom is to be maximized.

Obama’s Political Goals and Wisdom Values

Like Aristotle and many others, President Obama recognizes that the primary goal of our politics should be obtaining “the common good.” He also appreciates the importance of many of the virtues and values mentioned above and the need to balance them judiciously. In his pre-presidential The Audacity of Hope, he often mentions wisdom and other values and writes, “I think that Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values.” He goes on to insist that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics, the cornerstone of any meaningful debate about budgets and projects, regulations and policies.” In an NBC interview in September 2009, he alluded to the perennial debate of how we “balance freedom with our need to look out for one another,” and what role the government should play in striking this balance. To what extent his actions have demonstrated the values he proclaims and attempts to balance is, of course, open to debate. And that is important, for political wisdom involves not only thinking (and feeling) but action.

Ethical Realism

If presidents wish to deal with problems realistically and effectively, such as global warming and climate change, they must acknowledge the truth of their existence. Three of the twentieth-century’s most prominent commentators on political wisdom, Jacques Maritain, Isaiah Berlin, and Reinhold Niebuhr, stressed the necessity of an ethical realism when approaching political problems. In their Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role (2006), Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman advocate an idealistic realism of the type championed by Niebuhr and two other political theorists, George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, and maintain that all three men “shared a belief in the values of modesty, prudence, moderation, and tolerance, leading in practical terms to a preference for negotiation over violence whenever possible, and a belief in peace as the necessary basis for human progress.”

In The Audacity of Hope Obama sounds like Niebuhr, whose thinking he greatly admires, when he writes, “I imagine they [ordinary citizens] are waiting for a politics with a maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense.” He also criticized any ideology that overrides facts.

Most informed commentators on Obama’s policies have stressed his realism and pragmatism. For example, in December 2009, Newsweek columnist (now Timecolumnist) and former managing editor of Foreign Affairs Fareed Zakaria wrote, “Obama is a realist, by temperament, learning, and instinct.” Less often mentioned is his ethical idealism. But it was alluded to in the October 2009 press release of the committee selecting the president as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.”

obama phone

President Obama phoning servicemembers (White House photographer Pete Souza)

Occasionally, scholars and columnists mention his mix of realism or pragmatism and idealism. Historian Alan Brinkley, for example, writes that “his stewardship of his controversial health-care bill reveals both sides—pragmatism and idealism—of his political and philosophical beliefs.” Obama himself continued to believe that realism and idealism were not mutually exclusive. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he stated: “Within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists—a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world. I reject these choices. ... No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests—nor the world's—are served by the denial of human aspirations.”

Because the president believes in combining idealism and realism does not mean that he has always calibrated the mix perfectly or acted as wisely as he could have. Serious questions have been raised, for example, about his decisions regarding Afghanistan (see my longer essay on him mentioned in the first paragraph), but at least his goal of pursuing a policy of ethical realism seems an appropriate expression of political wisdom.

Compassion and Empathy

Obama has sometimes spoken of compassion and, more frequently, empathy. In The Audacity of Hope, he wrote: “A sense of empathy ... is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes. ... I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society.”

In a July 2007 speech to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Senator Obama told his audience what type of Supreme Court judges he would select if he became president: “We need somebody who’s got the heart—the empathy—to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old.”

In May 2009, announcing the retirement of Justice David Souter, President Obama said about him, "He approached judging ... with a feverish work ethic and a good sense of humor, with integrity, equanimity, and compassion—the hallmark of not just being a good judge but being a good person.” The president then spoke of nominating his replacement: “I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book, it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives, whether they can make a living, and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes, and welcome in their own nation. I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with peoples hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” Later that month he nominated Sonia Sotomayor and indicated that she was such a person.

When on March 23, 2010 President Obama signed into law health care legislation, among those invited to attend the ceremony were some who had suffered from being without health insurance. Compassion and empathy for such individuals seemed to be one motive for the president’s persistent efforts to enact what his opponents labeled “Obamacare.” And his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus package) and automobile industry bailout (expanded from earlier President Bush actions) displayed concern with both virtues by saving or creating several millions jobs.

Humility and Humor

In The Audacity of Hope Obama writes that there are some things he is “absolutely sure about ... the value of love and charity, humility and grace.” He also praised President Lincoln’s humility, citing several examples of it and associating it with the importance of “reasoned arguments” and resisting “the temptation to demonize.”

To avoid being isolated by “yes-men” and women who would feed a president’s ego, President Obama has encouraged the airing of differences and diversified views that might challenge his own.

In a commencement address at the University of Michigan on May 1, 2010, he told the graduates of reading ten letters per day from “ordinary Americans,” labeling it as his “modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place.” He added that “some express gratitude, some express anger. I’d say a good solid third call me an idiot, which is how I know that I’m getting a good, representative sample.” His advice to “seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs” in order to “begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from” also suggests possessing enough humility to realize that any of us, including him, could be wrong.

obama purple lady

White House photo by Pete Souza.

Not as gregarious and outgoing as some presidents, such as Bill Clinton, President Obama has sometimes been criticized for relying too much on old friends and not bringing in enough “outside” advisers. But his appointment of rival presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and Bush holdover Robert Gates to two of the most important Cabinet positions reveals a personality that is humble enough to surround himself with other strong independent-minded people.

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One appraisal of the president’s foreign policy that appeared in The New Yorkerin mid-2011 stated that “the one consistent thread running through most of Obama’s decisions has been that America must act humbly in the world.” The article cited his approach to Libya in 2011, when he encouraged Britain and France to take the lead in opposing Muammar Qaddafi and supporting rebel forces, as an example of a humbler foreign policy than that of his predecessor.

Reinhold Niebuhr, perceived a close connection between humility and humor. “Humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. The sense of humor is thus a by-product of self-transcendence. People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously.” Although not especially known for this quality, Obama occasionally displays it. In a March 30, 2010 article on the president’s “surprising sense of humor,” CBS News described it as “mordant, self-deprecating, deeply ironic,” and gave several examples of it. The article added, that “the lion's share of Obama's humor is aimed not at his foes, but at himself.”

Tolerance and Compromise

Tolerance and compromise are intertwined with humility, wisdom, empathy, and compassion. Because wise and humble people realize they do not have all the answers, they are more tolerant than most others; they recognize that we all are struggling to cope with problems as best we can. In turn, this realization makes wise people more empathetic and compassionate.

In his Profiles in Courage, John Kennedy (then still a senator) emphasized the value of political compromise, while balancing it with principle. In a chapter entitled “Our Constitution” in The Audacity of Hope, Obama displayed the basis of his own tolerance and willingness to compromise when he wrote: “It’s not just absolute power that the founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth ... any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.” Although he has sometimes been criticized by the Left for being too willing to compromise, such a willingness—if exercised on the right occasions—is not a vice but a virtue reflecting tolerance.

Throughout the first few years of his presidency, Obama attempted to balance his principles with the necessities of compromise. In his commencement address at the University of Michigan, as well as an earlier one at Notre Dame in 2009, he eloquently spoke of the necessity of tolerance and compromise, especially in the political arena. But, as he noted in a 2010 Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, “When it comes to just about everything we’ve done to strengthen our middle class, to rebuild our economy, almost every Republican in Congress says, no. Even on things we usually agree on, they say, no. If I said the sky was blue, they say, no. If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say, no. They just think it’s better to score political points before an election [the congressional elections of 2010] than to solve problems.” Consequently, by late 2011 and into early 2012 he placed less emphasis on compromise, but without forsaking his belief in the necessity of it in a pluralistic and ideologically divided society.

Temperance and Self-Discipline

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama praised such values as self-improvement, discipline, temperance, and hard work. He wrote that “these values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will. ... Our system of self-government and our free-market economy depend on the majority of individual Americans adhering to these values.” James T. Kloppenberg, in his Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (2011), writes that already as an undergraduate at Columbia University the “moderation that has become his trademark was already apparent.” A National Public Radio (NPR) program on him a few months before he was elected president stated that his “temperament is famously unflappable” and that his campaign mantra was "No Drama Obama." In researching his book Inside Obama’s Brain (2009), journalist Sasha Abramsky talked to over a hundred people who knew Obama and reported that “during the election campaign Obama almost never got upset, or panicked, by day-to-day shifts in momentum, by the ups and downs of opinion polls.” Abramsky refered to the president as “a voice of moderation in a corrosively shrill, partisan political milieu.”

Passion, Courage, and Creativity

In his century-old essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber ​listed passion as one of the “three pre-eminent qualities ... decisive for the politician.” He was thinking of passion in the sense of passion for a cause or principle. Obama also recognized the need for passionate idealism. InThe Audacity of Hope he wrote “that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty,” but that passionate, and sometimes uncompromising, idealists like William Lloyd Garrison​, Frederick Douglass​, and Harriet Tubman​ also advanced freedom. Obama also greatly admired later passionate civil rights crusaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. He remained, however, wary of the dangers of passion if not checked by reason and mentioned the Iraq war “as a war based not on reason but passion.”

Two values Obama often mentions and seems passionate about are justice and freedom. He is fond of quoting the words from our Pledge of Allegiance about “liberty and justice for all.” For example, he did so on May 31, 2011 in announcing that June was Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month—“While progress has taken time, our achievements in advancing the rights of LGBT Americans remind us that history is on our side, and that the American people will never stop striving toward liberty and justice for all.”

According to Kloppenberg, Obama seems to have been strongly influenced, directly or indirectly, by John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness” as spelled out in his A Theory of Justice (1971) and other writings. In them Rawls attempted to outline the proper balance between liberty and justice. In several of the president’s major initiatives, including his push for more comprehensive medical care coverage and advocating a reform of the tax code so that millionaires would pay a larger percentage of their income, we see him advocating “justice as fairness.”

In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy recognized different types of courage. “Some demonstrated courage through their unyielding devotion to absolute principle,” while “others demonstrated courage through their acceptance of compromise, through their advocacy of conciliation, through their willingness to replace conflict with co-operation.” President Obama’s political courage has been more of the second type—advocating conciliation at the risk of alienating his Leftist base. But many commentators think that in general he has not displayed much political courage.

At the end of 2011, however, Time columnist Joe Klein announced that President Obama was first on his list of Teddy Awards, an annual list for political courage named after President Theodore Roosevelt. Obama led the list, “not so much for his domestic policy, which was sane but unsuccessful, as for his performance as Commander in Chief. This was not expected to be a strength when he came to office, but it is a role that he inhabits with skill, prudence and confidence. Obama went against the military brass on three important matters this year—Libya, Afghanistan and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—and was right each time.”

Sometimes linked to charges that the president lacks passion and daring is the accusation that he lacks creativity. One critic, reviewing Carl Bernstein’s Obama’s Wars wrote that Obama “lacks the imagination and forcefulness to fashion his own conception of what a situation is, what it means and what the public need dictates in the way of policy action.” Others, however, believe that his leadership style encourages creative decision making. Kloppenberg, for example, writes that as president, “Obama makes use of the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism: we should debate our differences, and test provisional interpretations of principle, not by measuring proposals against unchanging dogmas but through trial and error, by trying to solve problems creatively and then democratically deliberating, yet again, on the consequences of our experiments.”

The Necessity of Judicious Balancing and Other Skills

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama recognizes that “finding the right balance between our competing values is difficult.” As an example, he notes “that even the wisest president and most prudent Congress would struggle to balance the critical demands of our collective security against the equally compelling need to uphold civil liberties.” He has also written of the need to balance freedom and individualism with “a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends. ... the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.”

Although recognizing the importance of properly balancing values in order to act wisely, President Obama has no doubt sometimes failed to strike exactly the right balance. But when this has been is disputable. Many conservatives believe that he has stressed empathy too much in his appointments of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and that a judge who is too empathetic will not be impartial. Many liberals and progressives, hoping for the display of more passionate idealism from the president, believe he has too often sacrificed it on the altar of compromise.

Many commentators have also questioned the effectiveness of his communicating skills and his choice of subordinates. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in November 2011: “For a man with a spectacular gift at public speaking, he has been surprisingly inept at communicating.” Despite sometimes giving inspiring speeches, too often, say many pundits, he speaks like a professor and does not stir the average voter. Others have questioned the wisdom of some of his choices for the “Obama team,” especially Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner.

To what extent these judgments are correct is difficult to say, but it is true that the president does not relate to the average voter, especially the average white male, with the same ease that more natural politicians like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did. Yet, charges that he is an elitist or too professorial often smack of the American anti-intellectualism that historian Richard Hofstadter decried decades ago. With politicians of both major political parties so often praising our founding fathers, including cosmopolitan men of the Enlightenment like Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, it seems illogical indeed to fault President Obama for sharing a similar cosmopolitan intellectualism. If we think of the wide-learning and respect for rationality displayed by these three founding fathers as aiding their political wisdom, should we not also think likewise about President Obama?

walter moss

Walter Moss

One final point. In a thorough and thoughtful essay on Obama in The Atlantic (March 2012), James Fallows considers the president’s shortcomings, including his lack of experience for the job in 2009. But he adds that “Obama has shown the main trait we can hope for in a president—an ability to grow and adapt.” Aristotle and others have indicated how such learning from experience can contribute to wisdom. If elected for four more years, President Obama will have something he did not have when he came to office in 2009—and something none of his rivals have—presidential experience.

Walter Moss

Republished with the author's permission from History News Network