By R. Drew Smith
This brief essay was originally published at UrbanFaith.com along with two other posts dealing with Barack Obama and the 2012 election. The president was sharply criticized by Princeton professor and social critic Cornel West over the weekend, primarily for not caring about poor people. R. Drew Smith sees the first black president as a pragmatic disciple of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism. AGB
Barack Obama has noted the influences on his thinking of prominent, twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. More than one recent president has cited Niebuhr’s influence, but Obama’s presidency has more strongly embraced core tenets of Niebuhr’s realism about the political importance of approximating rather than absolutizing our political ideals, and about the willingness to take required actions (even when inconsistent with our deeper purposes and preferences) in pursuit of those proximate objectives.
Niebuhr’s analysis provides reinforcement to the adage “politics is the art of compromise.” Most American presidents have been clear on this point — although there have been strong arguments for at least two recent exceptions. The presidencies of Jimmy Carter and of George W. Bush, who both cited Niebuhr as influential in their thinking, were much less given to a Niebuhrian approximation of good than Obama seems to be. Both Presidents Carter and Bush were sharply criticized for their uncompromising leadership styles. Ironically, President Obama has been equally criticized for his compromising style.
For Niebuhr, compromise was not something pursued for its intrinsic value (i.e., compromise for the sake of compromise), nor merely out of a desire to achieve or retain positions of leadership. Compromise was a means for achieving a common good. Similarly, Obama has understood that, in politics, you rarely get everything you want and, in order to set some of what you want, and to govern on behalf of all of the people, you may have to swallow some things you find unpleasant. This has been his approach in each of his major legislative initiatives and in the battles over the federal budget — with his end results being successfully formalized policies that in each instance have been decried on several fronts for their presumed deficiencies.
Here Obama is not being inconsistent with what he projected during his presidential campaign. He was elected in large part because he symbolized a change from politics-as-usual. He represented a bigness in his projection of ideals at the heart of the American political imagination — ideals related to being a nation fundamentally committed to rights, freedom, and opportunity for its citizens and for the world. Obama’s health-reform bill, his economic stimulus program, his budgetary battles over key educational and social-service assistance he believes are definitive of American government, and his diplomatic or military pressures in support of political reforms in Egypt, Libya, and Ivory Coast are more suggestive than not of the idealism supported by voters in 2008.
Obama has certainly not been pitch-perfect in the compromises he has reached. The current budget’s draconian cuts to safety-net programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) smack of a familiar calculation about the political expendability of the poor — or, in Obama’s own words, “asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it.” Should programs effectively responding to persons most in need have been non-negotiable items in Obama’s budget, and in his presidency? Asked another way, was acceptance of the funding cuts to a program like WIC in the interest of a proximate good, or was it an unwillingness to take required actions for achieving that proximate good?
American presidents possess significant leadership capital, and how they choose to expend that capital is what defines their presidencies. What defined Obama’s candidacy was that it embodied something more in the eyes of voters than his personal quest for the office. The fact that he has been able to achieve constructive compromises within America’s polarized, zero-sum political context is a feat for which he deserves applause — and one for which he was singularly well-suited. Nevertheless, his presidential term, and his prospects for reelection, will turn on how well he connects his political actions to a broader good and how well the American people understand those connections.
Dr. R. Drew Smith is Director of the Center for Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Scholar-in-Residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. He has edited numerous volumes on churches and public life, including Black Churches and Local Politics: Clergy Influence, Organizational Partnerships, and Civic Empowerment and New Day Begun: African American Churches and Civic Culture in Post-Civil Rights America. He is currently writing a book on black churches and contemporary public policy activism.