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President Obama’s Decision-Making Criterion

January 21, 2009

Yesterday’s presidential inauguration festivities certainly were exciting. I am grateful to have witnessed this historic moment.

However, even amidst this exciting time, President Obama’s well-crafted, well-delivered speech has left me with some trepidation. What particularly concerns me is the President’s criterion for decision-making, which was evident throughout the transition and in yesterday’s inspiring rhetorical gem.

Though much controversy abounds from Bush’s presidency, his decision-making style will not be subject to revisionist history. President Bush spoke often of rightness, fairness, justice, and democracy. These concepts—however abstract they may be—were Bush’s criteria for action. Certainly some debate may be waged as to whether he accurately applied these principles to his decisions, but no debate exists as to whether or not Bush, the decider, is a “principled” man.

Early in his presidency, Obama has exhibited his key criterion for decision-making:

“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.”

“What works” will be Obama’s decision-making criterion. This principle, of course, sounds wonderful. Obama can use the principle for bipartisan efforts.

On the other hand, this principle could have dire implications for both Obama’s policies and politics.

Some “what works” policies will have costs. A good example to consider is homeland security. Bush’s Patriot Act policies and procedures have drawn much criticism from civil-liberties advocates. In fact, Obama surreptitiously leveled such criticism in his address: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Presumably, some homeland security measures have restricted personal, civil liberties. However, if Obama applies the “what works” criterion, then these measures are worthy of implementation. America has been safe from 9/11 style attacks under these policies. How can Obama legitimately criticize them?

Politically, the President runs the risk of estranging both right and left. His adoption of a broad spectrum of policies will win the confidence of neither Pelosi nor McConnell. In Democrat circles, he runs the risk of becoming the Democrat’s John McCain, whom the party ideologues and the swing voters merely tolerate. Perhaps, his unprecedented momentum avoids this conundrum.

In considering these implications of Obama’s “what works” principle, I have failed to raise epistemological issues . “What works” has been the moral mantra of materialists and relativists. Furthermore, the “what works” principle invites the ever-entertaining dilemma of how one substantiates utility. Let the datamachy begin.

I am hoping and praying that President Obama’s pragmatism does not degenerate into an unprincipled pragmatism. Otherwise, this “change we can believe in” will leave us with nothing to believe.

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