Reflecting upon growing voter indifference in democracies across the Atlantic, historian Tony Judt chalked it up to a roster of world leaders who "convey neither conviction nor authority" and "stand for nothing in particular." These words resonate in the aftermath of Washington's rancorous debt ceiling debate as Democrats wonder how, despite controlling the Senate and Oval Office, they lost out on their one major demand: that spending cuts be paired with at least some increased revenue. It seems their president set the tone by negotiating from a position of weakness from the start, agreeing to unprecedented cuts in entitlement programs his party holds dear, asking for little in return — and constantly giving in on his own demands. The Democrats must again wonder about their president's convictions and mettle: Where does he stand? What principles will he fight for? Is nothing sacrosanct for him?
The easy explanation is that President Barack Obama is striking a centrist and pragmatic stance to attract independent voters in 2012. In a sense, pragmatism is emblematic of a good public servant. It is the president's job to carry out what is best for the electorate as a whole — not just what the left wants — and it is also his job to ensure that he stays in office … so that he can continue to get things done. But here's the rub: Pragmatists are nice, but they are hardly inspiring. Principles and principled stands — they inspire.
The left despised President George W. Bush for his intransigent allegiance to certain ideologies (supply-side economics, evangelical Christianity, neoconservative foreign policy), an allegiance that compelled him to take controversial, stubborn, sometimes disastrous policy positions. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, "W" was not one to let facts undermine his convictions. Early on, Mr. Obama's pragmatism seemed a refreshing change from all that. The Democrats don't find the president's brand of pragmatism refreshing anymore. Consider the mounting indignities.
Mr. Obama extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, though he long heaped scorn on them, and polls supported his stance. He has not closed the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp, even though he used to flash his constitutional law expertise in forcefully deriding it. In fact, Mr. Obama's legal instincts — and trademark caution and circumspection — are increasingly hard to detect in his own front of the War on Terror; it's difficult to defend the legal standing of our current drone warfare in Yemen and the tribal regions of Pakistan, seeing as we never officially declared war on those nations.
The president has wrung little reform from Wall Street and the banking industry, even though their reckless and sometimes immoral behavior contributed greatly to the 2008 crisis, and earned them a generous taxpayer-funded bailout nonetheless. Mr. Obama never succeeded in pressuring the banking industry to carry out widespread mortgage adjustment for millions of homeowners slipping into foreclosures, foreclosures that ensured the real estate market has sunk ever lower — and the whole economy with it.
In instances like these, you get the feeling the president isn't grabbing the bull by the horns. If now is not the time to reform the banking industry, in the wake of highly publicized misbehavior that brought about the biggest recession in 80 years, when is?
Flush with cash and facing a weak roster of contenders, Mr. Obama still stands a good chance in 2012. But if he wins, it will not be thanks to the passion of his followers; no one will be sporting "Hope" and "Change" posters next year. They will hold their noses and vote for him. Mr. Obama will have become a "lesser of two evils" — at best.
Of course, the great irony is that while Mr. Obama furiously flees his principles, the right fixes them to him nonetheless, and to great effect. Among the tea party faithful, it is doctrine that Mr. Obama is the worst kind of socialist, though he has repeatedly shrunk from anything of the sort. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was closer to the truth when he labeled the president a "corporatist." After all, Mr. Obama let the insurance industry help write his "socialist" health care reform bill.
If the right will intentionally, and often successfully, mischaracterize the president like this, you might say: What does he have to lose? Why not embrace that image? What if he spoke out brazenly, took a non-negotiable stand? What if he fired up people and truly earned the hatred of the right for a change? As Machiavelli argued, "fortune more often submits to those who act boldly than to those who proceed in calculating fashion."
Mr. Obama's opponents get this. The tea party throws caution to the wind and, for better or worse, riles up its troops. The president is confronted with an emboldened minority whose stated goal is to starve government. There is very little to compromise with here. He has no choice but to face them down; he risks being bowled over otherwise.
Democracy, Tony Judt reminds us, requires its leaders to take principled stands that alienate parts of the electorate and cause brutal government standoffs on occasion. Such is the price of political vision. Without it, the public stops caring, leaving us a democracy in name only.