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Presidency

David Brooks' Whale of a Tale

Obama drives David Brooks crazy.  He praises Obama for his "pragmatism," commitment to open debate (Fox news?), and "moderate temper"--while condemning him for seeming to become "like the sovereign on the cover of [Thomas Hobbes'] 'Leviathan'-- the brain of the nation to which all the cells in the body and the nervous system must report and defer."

Alas:

President Obama has shown himself to be a fine administrator, but he erred in trying to make himself the irreplaceable man in nearly ever sphere of public life. He erred in not sensing that even a pragmatic government could seem imperious and alarming.

This is the error of a pragmatic man?  Sounds more like the ideological fanatic that Hobbes strove to contain but instead spawned.

UPDATE:  A sidebar on the Brooks article contains a brief symposium on the first complete Hebrew translation of the Leviathan.  It also has the striking Leviathan frontispiece Brooks mentions.  One contributor mentions that only recently "complete Hebrew editions of Locke, Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill have appeared for the first time -- each restoring material about the Bible and religion that earlier Israeli translators had elided."  What these commentators miss is that Hobbes founded two traditions--the liberal one that the state exists to protect individual rights and the totalitarian one that the sovereign defines all legitimate activity. 

Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 7 Comments

Well put. But I'm still puzzled by Brooks' belief that Bush was a limited government guy. He writes:
"Over the years, American voters have reacted against any party that threatens that basic sense of proportion. They have reacted against a liberalism that sought an enlarged and corrosive government and a conservatism that threatened to dismantle the government’s supportive role."
Does that explain Bush? Compassionate conservatism was big-government Conservatism. Perhaps the trouble is that Brooks is, in fact, a compassionate conservative, but also does not want to admit, perhaps even to himself, that he and Bush are in the same camp--at least outside the hot-button social issues.

It's probably also worth noting that some of what made Obama so popular was that during the campaign he was able to woo Americans with a libertarian streak who were fed up with big government and cronyism (and big government is a sufficient cause of cronyism) under Bush.

Obama did not have a mandate to expand the state. He had one to make the U.S. governent work better.

On the other hand, by passing the stimulous, he has been able to take credit for financial stabilization (and the stress tests were on his watch). But most of that was probably due to the TARP stuff passed during the campaign, however many problems there are with TARP. On the other hand, having passed the stimulus, which Americans identify with TARP, he's stuck owning big government now.

"a conservatism that threatened to dismantle the government’s supportive role."
Maybe this refers to Bush's futile attempt to reform/privatize social security, though that was scarcely a factor in 2008, Or maybe, as you suggest, Bush was cowed into TARP by not wanting to appear indifferent; he just had to do something.

But surely, a pragmatist appreciates the need for entitlement reform, and is not opposed to a partial turn to private accounts. Bush did not propose an outright end of hand-outs from Washington. That would have been ideological.
I'm not sure Bush was, in fact cowed into TARP. It was his kind of thing. Brooks might see it that way, however.

I especially like this,

"In many ways, Barack Obama has lived up to his promise. He has created a thoughtful, pragmatic administration marked by a culture of honest and vigorous debate. When Obama makes a decision, you can be sure that he has heard and accounted for every opposing argument. If he senses an important viewpoint is not represented at a meeting, he will stop the proceedings and demand that it gets included.

If the evidence leads him in directions he finds uncomfortable, he will still follow the evidence. He is beholden to no ideological camp, and there is no group in his political base that he has not angered at some point in his first year.

But his has become a voracious pragmatism. Driven by circumstances and self-confidence, the president has made himself the star performer in the national drama."

Once again this annoying but understandable tic by Brooks. The meat of the article is that Obama has moved in a too statist and too centralist direction, but he has to feed his audience big gobs of sugary goo about what an awesome and so nonideological guy Obama is. I suspect that this is because Brooks thinks that if he told his audience that a) Obama's policies are too liberal and b) Obama is an ideological liberal, on the same day, his audience will tune him out.

Pete, You may be right. On the other hand Brooks is a fan of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a big government, Progressive Republican. He was not a limited government, constitutionalist republican.

Richard, I agree that Brooks is to the left of most conservatives on economic regulation, taxes, and such (while to the right of Obama). It is just the way he prefaces his disagreement with Obama with the oily flattery.

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