Is Obama Ideological?

It’s not easy being tempered, pragmatic, and non-ideological during a period dominated by partisanship and ideology. That’s the theme of E. J. Dionne’s most recent column in the Washington Post:

In fact, Obama is a tempered sort of progressive who repeatedly annoys his party’s left with an incessant pursuit of Republican support for “grand bargains” — one reason his health-care plan is so state-oriented and gives Republican governors and legislatures so much opportunity to undermine it.


He’s an anti-ideological leader in an ideological age, a middle-of-the-road liberal skeptical of the demands placed on a movement leader, a politician often disdainful of the tasks that politics asks him to perform. He wants to invite the nation to reason together with him when nearly half the country thinks his premises and theirs are utterly at odds. Doing so is unlikely to get any easier. But being Barack Obama, he’ll keep trying.

One of the problems with being guided by ideology, especially when you’re surrounded by others who share your ideology, is that you’re inclined to view it as pragmatic which is what I think that Mr. Dionne is doing here.

I find the president quite moderate in demeanor which is easy to confuse with being moderate in policy as well. I think he’s highly political, highly partisan, and ideological. I don’t think he’s a crypto-Marxist, a radical leftist, a secret Muslim, or any of the other idiocies he’s been charged with.

I think he’s a technocrat and that is an ideology. I also think that in his operational hierarchy of values politics is first, then partisanship, then ideology. That’s the easiest way to explain some of the lacunae in his technocracy. How, for example, do you explain appointing Rahm Emanuel as your chief-of-staff? Or Steve Rattner as “auto czar”? Now Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce? Is the prominence of fundraisers and bundlers in his administration just a coincidence?

Additionally, I think he has the tropism common to members of a profession in underestimating the expertise of individuals not members of that profession and overestimating the expertise of those who are. It is not, in fact, true that a good, Ivy-educated lawyer can do anything he sets his (or her) mind to.

It might be that I’m radicalized on this subject and can’t judge fairly. I’m predisposed towards being anti-technocratic since I think that in practice technocracy is a stalking horse for putting people who think like you do in charge of everything.

4 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    If those are your proofs that Obama is political and ideological it’s not much of a case. By those standards the same would apply to all presidents and if all presidents are “politics first” then I guess we’re talking about a norm not an exception.

  • By those standards the same would apply to all presidents and if all presidents are “politics first” then I guess we’re talking about a norm not an exception.

    I never claimed anything else.

  • jan Link


  • jan Link

    Jonah Goldberg gives his response to whether or not Obama is an ideologue.

    For liberals, ideology is only something the other guys have. Liberalism is just doing the good and smart thing. If you think the good and smart thing is ideological, that’s just proof you’re a rightwing ideologue (or a racist!). The fact that doing good nearly always requires more government is just a coincidence.

    So true. Goldberg hit the liberal nail on it’s head.

Leave a Comment