Politics, Pragmatism, and Rhetoric – Part One

Part one, in a two part series exploring the intersection of rhetoric and pragmatism in the politics of Barack Obama. Part two is here.

A lot of people watched the Obama inauguration speech waiting for what I found myself calling “the Kennedy moment.” They listened intently for that one line, that marvelous sound bite, that piece of undeniable wisdom, that defining sentence that helps us define ourselves just a little bit better in this troubled time. Obama’s best speeches have done this to great effect.

In the weeks since the inauguration there has not been much agreement on which, if any, one phrase settled in the minds of the nation as the sum of the entire speech. It’s likely that those who did find what they were looking for in his speech, found it in different places, identifying with various pieces of what was a complex and wide-ranging address.

For me, the line that stood out in Obama’s speech was not aspirational or inspirational. It was not  a call to serve or a call to act. At best, it was a clarification – but an important one. One our nation has needed to hear and one that, for me, indicated volumes about how Obama will approach his work as president.

Towards the end of his speech, in what appeared at first to be little more than a pre-emptive pitch for the massive stimulus spending package that was already waiting in the wings, was this short passage:

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.  The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.  Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.  Where the answer is no, programs will end.  And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

The entire passage is important, but I want to focus in on one line in particular, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This line is brilliant rhetorically, beautiful in its composition, and powerful in its message. It takes a long standing talking point of the Republican party (smaller government is better government) and confronts it head-on with simple common-sense. It asserts essentially “they are asking the wrong questions, and they already have their minds made up.” To ask if government is too small or too big, suggests a value system already in place informing your answer. To ask simply “what works” removes values (at least on the surface) and hitches your judgments and your action to evidence.

On top of that, it is a great line and was delivered perfectly.

What struck me most about this line was the way it crystallized the pragmatic foundation at the center of Obama’s decision making process. For Obama, good government is government that works, that “helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” To understand good government we have to look away from the partisan positioning that has defined our two party system and look at the actual results on the ground. How are our policies – new and old – impacting people? What is their influence on the world?

Much has been made about Obama’s Illinois political roots, most often in reference to Lincoln. However, it was impossible for me not to hear echoes of another Chicagoan in Obama’s remarks on that cold January day: John Dewey.

In his essay “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy” John Dewey writes, “If changing conduct and expanding knowledge ever required a willingness to surrender not merely old solutions but old problems it is now.” In this piece he advocates for a pragmatic approach that calls on us to test our ideas against our own experiences of the world. When deciding how to act, how to be, we must look to the future and consider how that decision will impact the world.

Dewey’s predecessor William James perhaps said it most concisely: “In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true?” In other words, what works and what doesn’t work? William James and John Dewey’s willingness to cast off the traditions and accepted ideas of philosophy is a hallmark of pragmatism. This decision helps them understand the world in new ways, and challenges them to test their ideas against the real world. One of the most important aspects of their philosophy was its emphasis on action, on testing our assumptions, testing our decisions, on acting and learning from that action, and then revising our understanding of the world through that experience.

Obama hinted at this pragmatic emphasis earlier in the month, in his big economic speech on January 8th. He said:

“There is no doubt that the cost of this plan will be considerable.  It will certainly add to the budget deficit in the short-term.  But equally certain are the consequences of doing too little or nothing at all, for that will lead to an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes, and confidence in our economy.

That’s why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan won’t just throw money at our problems – we’ll invest in what works.  The true test of the policies we’ll pursue won’t be whether they’re Democratic or Republican ideas, but whether they create jobs, grow our economy, and put the American Dream within reach of the American people.”

Here he is looking forward, refusing to be bounded by the narrowly defined and polarizing dichotomy of “Democratic or Republican ideas,” and instead promising to test his ideas against the world. In this passage he calls on people to look at his policies, not through the lens we have used for so long, but through a new lens – one focused not on DC now, but on America in the future. In doing so, he is also shifting the responsiblity and the power to define what works from DC insiders to the American people. On National Public Radio, one commentator described this as “The sense of, we are going to provide you with competent leadership that is not full of certitude — we have ideas, we’re going to try the ideas; if they don’t work we’ll try something else, but we’ll get it done.” As he did so well in his campaign he is calling people to be involved.

Obama has long been known as a uniter. And even while his election could be considered a landslide after the narrow margins of the 2000 and 2004 elections, he still faces a deeply divided country. However, instead of ignoring those divisions (or exacerbating them) as George Bush did, Obama has taken them head on, and refused to be bound or beholden to either side. This has long been part of his rhetoric. Think of this well worn sound bite from the campaign: “We are not just red states and blue states, we are the United States.” And consider these passages from his inaugural address: “Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill,” and in the next section,”As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” He is refusing the “false choice” that our old ways of thinking and speaking have locked us in to, and is trying to chart a new course.

John Dewey has a number of extended discussions in his writing about the misleading and damaging ways in which these sorts of dichotomies have organized the world around us. For Dewey, as for Obama, these dichotomies break down in the realm of experience. Dewey focuses primarily on the dichotomies of human/nature and body/mind, while Obama deconstructs red/blue, liberal/conservative. In Obama’s experiences as a community organizer and in his goal of finding what works, he recognizes that drawing lines is much less useful than connecting dots.

In his essay entitled, “Body and Mind” Dewey invokes the word “techne,” from ancient Greece to designate a form of thinking that included “both science and art.” Dewey is interested in life as a process that encompasses both the physical and the mental and uses the phrases “wholeness of operation” and “unity in action” to capture this idea. We can almost see Obama working phrases like that into his own speeches.

Where Dewey was most focused, in these passages, on the individual, Obama sets his sights on the body politic at large. And in this passage from his inaugural address we see these ideas of wholeness, unity and action espoused:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

In this passage we get a glimpse of one more vital overlap between Obama and pragmatism – the emphasis on language.

I’ll explore this and other issues in more depth in part two of this post.


  1. d says:

    josh, i definitely agree you about the complexity of the speech and how it seems that no one can settle on what “the” line was. it was actually interesting to me in the days leading up to the speech that people anticipated that the speech would produce such a “kennedy moment.” i thought that throughout the campaign, obama had assiduously resisted providing the kind of answers or lines that could be clipped, processed, and repeated (rinse, lather, repeat), that he was careful to tune the complexity and complications of his rhetoric to the challenges of the times. he kept folding context and contingency into his language, which made it less excerpt-able and invited a dialogic engagement with the ideas that he was presenting. what i mean to say is that obama did a poor job (or a good job, depending on your perspective) of providing for soundbites or one-liners. when i watched cable or broadcast news coverage of him, i thought that they had a tough time excerpting from him. the clips were either too long or they required that the anchor provide a lengthier lead-in than usual. so it struck me as strange that people were anticipating one line from him that would stand out. i would say that his style is essentially accretive and that he consistently makes an effort to problematize ideas. i think the passages that you pulled below and your comments on them are somewhat reflective of this.

    also, at the most basic level, the sentence you highlight at the beginning (“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”) represents a seismic shift of the rhetorical grounds on which the debate about the role of government is held. the underlying assumption in this sentence is that government programs CAN and DO work if run properly and efficiently. this seems to be a wholesale repudiation of reagan’s famous proclamation that government is the problem. in fact, i would say that the gop’s governing philosophy the last eight years – a philosophy that has been repeated linguistically over and over and, frighteningly, actually put into action – is that government can’t possibly work. obama rejects that premise and instead posits an entirely different proposition.

    additionally, that process of revising our understanding of the world that james and dewey so often described also involves, i think, adjusting the way in which we talk about the world. so “revising our understanding” in some sense means adjusting the very words that we use to describe what we have experienced in a better, more precise, more descriptive way. thus, there’s some sort of exchange of old meanings for new that can never be unwound from the way in which we act out in the world.

    the point of all of this is that by speaking differently, obama can open up the rhetorical space he needs politically to act differently, right? by putting forward a different vocabulary, he’s suggesting that the country can be fundamentally changed by new policies that represent a pretty dramatic shift from what we’ve experienced in the last eight years. change for the better is slow to come in this country, but obama seems to be trying to verbally lay the groundwork for something more than just incremental policy changes.

  2. Josh says:

    D – thanks for the thoughtful response. Your point about Obama being able to use his language to capture and reflect the complexity of issues is an important one. I think that, as with the concrete projects he is proposing now, he also believes that you need to use a language “that works.” This is getting at the point you make about revising our understanding of the world and rethinking the way we speak about it.

    It is telling that what worked in this election was a problematization of issues rather than a solving of them. Does this indicate a shift in willingness as a national to look for easy solutions?

    I think you nail it in your last paragraph: “by speaking differently, Obama can open up the rhetorical space he needs politically to act differently, right” I get into this in much more detail in part two of this post here:

    But you say it expertly in your comment.

  3. CB says:

    Ah, if only Obama had said the “The question we ask today is not whether our MILITARY is too big or too small, but whether it works.” It’s ironic that the Bush Administration DID seem to curry a blind faith in the military’s ability to govern the Middle East, even as they bashed and slashed the Welfare State at home. Conservatives thought nothing of pouring hundreds of billions into a foreign adventure with a dubious return on investment–not to mention the various “externalities” of maintaining our standing army along with hundreds of military bases all over the world.

    So, there are three rhetorical masterstrokes I’m still waiting to hear from Obama:

    1. Tar and feather the military with “wasteful spending.” Remember those $500 toilet seats? Now look at Iraq. What, exactly, are we paying for? Let’s apply the laws of pragmatism to our Defense budget. Does this work? If not, “programs will end.”

    2. Connect the idea of “National Security” to jobs and education. The “terrorists win” when your neighbor loses her house, when your Dad gets fired, when your child can’t afford to go to school. What we should ALL fight to defend–to the death–is every American’s access to the American Dream. That is the great ideal that flows through our veins. That is TRUE patriotism.

    3. Finally, exhort Americans to “Put thine house in order.” I was enthralled by the somewhat stern tone of Obama’s inaugural speech. It just felt right. We have all behaved badly. From Wall Street, to Main Street, from national deficits to personal debt, we–as a country–have all refused to live within our individual and collective means. We are overextended in both our foreign policy and our material consumption and it is time to cut back. I am indebted to Andrew Bacevich on this score and certainly hope that Obama lends him an ear.

    A final note on the gap between words and action. As D put it above, “by speaking differently, obama can open up the rhetorical space he needs politically to act differently, right?” Let’s hope so, but the self-described change agent who beat Hillary by being anti-war,” is–through his actions–pursuing continuity in long-standing project of American expansionism: Gates, Petraeus, Afgahistan, illegal unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, etc. etc.

    As the events of the last few months should make perfectly clear, we are living in a bloated, overextended empire, teetering on the edge of its own collapse. For me, the most chilling phrase in Obama’s speech was this: “We will not apologize for our way of life.” Oh contraire Mr. President. We have all too much to apologize for. And you, with your “tongue dipped in the unvarnished truth,” are the best man to break the news. Or, to borrow from Lakoff, you’re just the kind of “stern father” that all we liberals have been waiting for.

  4. GekWataru says:

    Bottom line…it’s refreshing to have an intellectual president. No easy sound bites or slogans.

  5. A says:

    Whenever I see a picture of Obama, or someone mentions his name, I feel my heart lift up a little. He has a way of engendering hope in people in a way that most politicians have been unable to do in recent times. I remember hearing statistics about this on NPR over the summer- they actually surveyed people about which candidate made them feel more hopeful. There was also some discussion about why Obama is able to inspire hope in Americans. I think aside from his promise of change, it has much to do with his pragmatism. Simply put, his ideas make sense to most people. If something isn’t working, you fix it. And although he did not spell out exactly how he is going to fix things, it was important for him to put into words what needs to be changed at home and abroad. He gave us a starting point, a “to-do” list. And he did so using language and metaphors that resonated with many Americans. I watched the address at a local bar in a standing room only crowd, and while certainly this group did not represent a cross-section of America, I could tell from the frequent nodding of heads that people were connecting with what they were hearing.

    Some other thoughts:
    I remember a teacher or professor (not sure whether it was high school or college) once making a comment that the most intelligent Americans never become president. I wish I could remember more of the dialogue surrounding that statement. But when Obama came onto the scene I recalled this comment and thought “It’s about time.” We know he is smart, but it is his skill as an orator and use of the language that really stand out.

    I think what Obama is able to bring to the White House with his background as a community organizer is invaluable. In college I was involved with a “new student politics” movement. The ideas about civic engagement and political activity that formed this movement came out of a disconnect that we were feeling between community service and the conventional political model that most of us considered inaccessible as a tool for social change (and horribly corrupt). I wonder how this will change now that we have a president who is focusing on breaking down problems, addressing root causes, and bringing people together. He has already changed the face of politics (although it is a shame that some of his top choices for cabinet positions haven’t exactly been squeaky clean- maybe it is inescapable to some extent). Hopefully he will inspire all Americans (including college students) to a new level of civic engagement.

  6. Josh says:

    Hi A
    Thanks for your response – you wrote “The ideas about civic engagement and political activity that formed this movement came out of a disconnect that we were feeling between community service and the conventional political model that most of us considered inaccessible as a tool for social change (and horribly corrupt). I wonder how this will change now that we have a president who is focusing on breaking down problems, addressing root causes, and bringing people together.”

    In some ways I think that Obama has, perhaps better than any other president, sought to combine the politics of politics and the politics and community service. It seems as though, from his own work as a community organizer and the way he engaged people in diverse ways through his campaign, that he gets the need for both kinds of civic participation.

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