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The Empiricist Strikes Back

Obama's pragmatism explained.

In the last few weeks, a number of people on the left have expressed disappointment with Barack Obama. Obama has said that the death penalty may be appropriate for child rape. He has applauded the Supreme Court's recognition of an individual right to own guns. He has voted for wiretapping reform that includes retroactive immunity for telephone companies. Having raised doubts about NAFTA during the primary, Obama recently said that he does not want to reopen negotiations unilaterally.

Perhaps because of Obama's strong and early opposition to the Iraq war, and because he has not been on the national scene long, some people on the left have projected their own views onto him. They think that his recent departures from left-wing orthodoxy are a form of flip-flopping or some kind of betrayal.

These objections miss the mark. Obama has not betrayed anyone. The real problem lies in the assumption, still widespread on both the left and the right, that Obama is a doctrinaire liberal whose positions can be deduced simply by asking what the left thinks.

Of course Obama is a progressive. From health care to assistance for low-income families to education to environmental protection, he emphasizes that Americans have duties to one another, and that government should be taking active steps to provide equal opportunity and to help those who need help. But, by nature, he is also an independent thinker, and he listens to all sides. One of his most distinctive features is that he is a minimalist, not in the sense that he always favors small steps (he doesn't), but because he prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations.

When he offers visionary approaches, he does so as a visionary minimalist--that is, as someone who attempts to accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans. His reluctance to challenge people's deepest commitments might turn out to be what makes ambitious plans possible--notwithstanding the hopes of the far left and the cartoons of the far right.

Obama's views have never been simple to characterize. For a number of years, Obama has expressed his support for capital punishment. As a teacher of constitutional law, he does believe that the Second Amendment creates an individual right to have guns and said so well before the Supreme Court ruled to that effect. While he emphasizes the need for environmental and labor safeguards, Obama is no protectionist. He understands the power of markets, and, in principle, he is committed to free trade. Reiterating these long-held positions does not exactly count as flip-flopping or "tacking to the center."

No politician, and no human being, is fully consistent, and it is true that Obama's emphases have sometimes changed over time and that he has been willing to compromise. Having suggested that he would filibuster a measure granting the telecom companies retroactive immunity, Obama strongly favored a substitute bill that rejected such immunity. In the end, however, he was willing to vote for a bill with immunity. He did so on the grounds that it strengthens the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (thus rejecting the Bush administration's most ambitious claims of inherent presidential authority)--while also specifically requiring (for the first time) judicial warrants for surveillance of Americans overseas and increasing protection against abuse in various ways, such as by mandating reports by the inspectors general. To be sure, reasonable people rejected the compromise. But, in the end, even Morton Halperin, among the nation's strongest defenders of privacy, declared that the bill "provides important safeguards for civil liberties."

There is a much larger issue here, and it has to do with the distinctive nature of this particular candidate. Obama really means it when he deplores red-state-blue-state divisions and claims to draw ideas from Republicans as well as Democrats. Just as he resists ideological templates, Obama does not believe in "triangulation"; his skepticism about conventional ideological categories is principled, not strategic. It is revealing, and entirely characteristic, that Obama admires Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, in which Goodwin describes Lincoln's self-conscious decision to assemble a contentious, bipartisan cabinet. By nature, Obama does not follow old-line political orthodoxies. Above all, Obama's form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work.

Consider his domestic agenda. Favoring aggressive action to control greenhouse-gas emissions, he is open to considering nuclear power and has explicitly credited Republicans for promoting market-oriented approaches to environmental problems (and he has attracted the scorn of some on the left for doing so). A sharp critic of No Child Left Behind, he has spoken favorably about merit pay for teachers. Offering an ambitious health care plan, he would not require adults to purchase health insurance. His goal is to make health care available, not to force people to buy it--a judgment that reflects Obama's commitment to freedom of choice, his pragmatic nature (an enforcement question: Would those without health care be fined or jailed?), and his desire to produce a plan that might actually obtain a consensus. And, while he would raise taxes on the very richest Americans, he is hardly anti-business; indeed, he proposes to eliminate the capital gains tax for start-ups and small companies.

Many people on the left want Obama to be the anti-Bush. But what, exactly, does this mean? To some, it means a kind of left-wing Bushism--the mirror image of the Bush administration, with its rigidity, its insistence on enduring political divisions, and its ruthlessly Manichean approach to political life. If so, the left is likely to be disappointed. Obama wants politicians, including Democrats, to accept "the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point." Obama does not demonize his opponents. For instance, he strongly favors the right to abortion, but he speaks respectfully and sympathetically of those who are pro-life. He does not like to attack people's motives. Speaking on what may be the most divisive issue of our time, he has often said that "there are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq."

But in his empiricism, his curiosity, his insistence on nuance, and his lack of dogmatism, Obama is indeed a sort of anti-Bush--and perhaps the best kind. If the Bush administration has often operated on the basis of the president's "instinct," we should expect to see, from Obama, a rigorously evidence-based government. If the Bush administration has rejected internal dissent and viewed disagreement as disloyalty, Obama is likely to seek advisers who will reflect diverse views and challenge his own inclinations. In the Senate, one of Obama's proudest accomplishments has been the Coburn-Obama Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, for which he worked closely with archconservative Tom Coburn to create an Internet database of federal spending.

The larger point is that Obama's departures from left-wing orthodoxy should not be understood as a betrayal of his own beliefs, or as a kind of "tacking to the center." Instead, they reflect something altogether different: an independence of mind, and a rejection of doctrinal filters, that we do not often see in candidates for public office.

Cass R. Sunstein is co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. He has been an occasional, informal adviser to Barack Obama.

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By Cass R. Sunstein