Meditations on the Politics of Limited Knowledge

Political Knowledge in an Era of Ungovernability: Obama, GOP and Tea Baggers

In Current Events, Politics on February 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm

“I’m not a pundit. I’m just a President…” And indeed Obama was when he met with members of the House of Representatives Republican Caucus on January 29. Obama’s televised Q&A with House GOP (transcript) proved to be a model for professional and productive political discourse with Obama at the top of his game as a knowledgeable, respectful, thoughtful, charismatic leader.

He was focused on the substance of the issues, insistent on the facts, and pragmatic — i.e. non-ideological in his reasoning about how to get from the facts to desired social outcomes. Rhetorically at least, he opened himself to opposing ideas. But he would not allow opposing ideology to substitute for alternative pragmatic approaches to solving problems.

I’ve said this before, but I’m a big believer not just in the value of a loyal opposition, but in its necessity.  Having differences of opinion, having a real debate about matters of domestic policy and national security — and that’s not something that’s only good for our country, it’s absolutely essential.  It’s only through the process of disagreement and debate that bad ideas get tossed out and good ideas get refined and made better.  And that kind of vigorous back and forth — that imperfect but well-founded process, messy as it often is — is at the heart of our democracy.  That’s what makes us the greatest nation in the world.

It certainly would make us “the greatest nation in the world” if it could be accomplished in our public sphere. We have plenty of disagreement and “vigorous back and forth,” but our discourse manifestly lacks the norms necessary for all of that vigor to serve as a mechanism for bad ideas getting “tossed out” and good ideas getting “refined and made better.”

The only thing I don’t want — and here I am listening to the American people, and I think they don’t want either — is for Washington to continue being so Washington-like.  I know folks, when we’re in town there, spend a lot of time reading the polls and looking at focus groups and interpreting which party has the upper hand in November and in 2012 and so on and so on and so on.  That’s their obsession.

And I’m not a pundit.  I’m just a President, so take it for what it’s worth.  But I don’t believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security.  They want us to focus on their job security.  (Applause.)  I don’t think they want more gridlock.  I don’t think they want more partisanship.  I don’t think they want more obstruction.

Obama cited precedents of bipartisan cooperation but then called out GOP for opposing crucial projects, including $300 million in tax cuts for stimulus.

There was an interesting headline in CNN today:  “Americans disapprove of stimulus, but like every policy in it.” And there was a poll that showed that if you broke it down into its component parts, 80 percent approved of the tax cuts, 80 percent approved of the infrastructure, 80 percent approved of the assistance to the unemployed.

Well, that’s what the Recovery Act was.  And let’s face it, some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities.  Now, I understand some of you had some philosophical differences perhaps on the just the concept of government spending, but, as I recall, opposition was declared before we had a chance to actually meet and exchange ideas.  And I saw that as a missed opportunity.

This is a great example of obfuscation in lieu of honest opposition. A healthy political culture should promote the kind of political rhetoric that clarifies the choices faces the American people rather than masking them or distorting them with misleading frames.

With respect to health care… Obama throws down this challenge: “If anyone here truly believes our health insurance system is working well for people, I respect your right to say so, but I just don’t agree.” He makes clear how many Republican policy suggestions have been included in the administration’s health care reform package. Congenially, he claims that he embraced them because they were good ideas. Almost certainly, most of these were included in the legislation out of a naive quest for bipartisan support, but I trust that in principle Obama is not just a political pragmatist (doing what it takes to get the votes) but a philosophical pragmatist committed to freeing examination of policy proposals from ideological filters. Unfortunately I think that most of the HCR concessions degraded the quality of the legislation without expanding its congressional support. Obama called the cynical opposition to his centrist health care reform during the Q&A:

Now, you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and, certainly you don’t agree with Tom Daschle on much, but that’s not a radical bunch.  But if you were to listen to the debate and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot. No, I mean, that’s how you guys — (applause) — that’s how you guys presented it.

And so I’m thinking to myself, well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist – no, look, I mean, I’m just saying, I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans — is similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

So all I’m saying is, we’ve got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality.  I’m not suggesting that we’re going to agree on everything, whether it’s on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me.

The current health care package is not only centrist, but about as conservative as minimally meaningful reform aiming at expanded – approaching universal – access can get. Republicans have every right to oppose it. But the media and political opposition should be able to effectively clarify the reasons for opposition and squash the distortions and hypocrisy: e.g. Republicans pretending to stand up against Medicare cuts effected by the bill. The Republican opposition has been at best ideological and at worst cynical – mostly the latter in this case. What it has not been is thoughtfully pragmatic and reasonable.

In his thoughtful Q&A, Obama modeled a dialog — that if taken seriously by the media and presented with some depth — could translate disagreement into better political outcomes. From my perspective, the most important aspects of his rhetoric were a combination of pragmatism, mastery of the relevant facts, and a posture of epistemic humility with respect to the “best way forward” on controversial, but urgent challenges facing the government.

Obama patiently listening to question from Rep. Pence

His response to the first question from Republican Congressman Pence nailed it:

And the notion that I would somehow resist doing something that cost half as much but would produce twice as many jobs — why would I resist that? I wouldn’t. I mean, that’s my point, is that — I am not an ideologue. I’m not. It doesn’t make sense if somebody could tell me you could do this cheaper and get increased results that I wouldn’t say, great. The problem is, I couldn’t find credible economists who would back up the claims that you just made.  

So I think that we’ve got to look at what specific proposals you’re putting forward, and — this is the last point I’ll make — if you’re calling for just across-the-board tax cuts, and then on the other hand saying that we’re somehow going to balance our budget, I’m going to want to take a look at your math and see how that works, because the issue of deficit and debt is another area where there has been a tendency for some inconsistent statements. How’s that? All right?

With respect to deficits… Congressman Hensarling claimed that “what were the old annual deficits under Republicans have now become the monthly deficits under Democrats.  The national debt has increased 30 percent.”

THE PRESIDENT: Jeb, I know there’s a question in there somewhere, because you’re making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with, and I’m having to sit here listening to them. At some point I know you’re going to let me answer. All right.

CONGRESSMAN HENSARLING: That’s the question. You are soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President. Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy? That’s the question, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: Jeb, with all due respect, I’ve just got to take this last question as an example of how it’s very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we’re going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.

Now, look, let’s talk about the budget once again, because I’ll go through it with you line by line. The fact of the matter is, is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion. — $1.3 [trillion.] So when you say that suddenly I’ve got a monthly budget that is higher than the — a monthly deficit that’s higher than the annual deficit left by the Republicans, that’s factually just not true, and you know it’s not true.

And what is true is that we came in already with a $1.3 trillion deficit before I had passed any law. What is true is we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade — had nothing to do with anything that we had done. It had to do with the fact that in 2000 when there was a budget surplus of $200 billion, you had a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, and we had two tax cuts that weren’t paid for.

You had a prescription drug plan — the biggest entitlement plan, by the way, in several decades — that was passed without it being paid for. You had two wars that were done through supplementals. And then you had $3 trillion projected because of the lost revenue of this recession. That’s $8 trillion.

Now, we increased it by a trillion dollars because of the spending that we had to make on the stimulus. I am happy to have any independent fact-checker out there take a look at your presentation versus mine in terms of the accuracy of what I just said.

On point after point, Obama wielded uncontroversial facts to cut through the ideological drivel coming at him in the form of scripted questions. Perhaps most importantly he displayed an attitude that is desirable on its face and totally incompatible with the stubborn ideology and staggering cynicism of the GOP.

Stewart Imitates Republican Watching Obama's Crush GOP Talking Points

As Jon Stewart put it, “It’s like he’s seeing their taking points in bullet time,” à la Neo in The Matrix. Stewart notes the importance of this exchange in the context of our pathological political culture and calls out a particularly guilty institution that perpetuates that culture: “Now obviously this kind of candid give and take between the president and his rivals is somewhat unprecedented in our pre-staged kabuki political culture.” CNN and MSNBC carried it live start to finish. “And Fox, they carried it live for a while… ‘We’re going to cut away because… this is against the narrative we present.'”

Back in his own tent, Obama has conservative democrats to take on vis-a-vis similar, if slightly moderated, quibbles. Meeting with the Democratic Caucus a week after the GOP Q&A, Obama challenged the centrist timidity of Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln:

If the price of certainty is essentially for us to adopt the exact same proposals that were in place for eight years leading up to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression — we don’t tinker with health care, let the insurance companies do what they want, we don’t put in place any insurance reforms, we don’t mess with the banks, let them keep on doing what they’re doing now because we don’t want to stir up Wall Street — the result is going to be the same… I don’t know why we would expect a different outcome pursuing the exact same policy that got us into this fix in the first place.

Even in his own party, Obama is up against ideological blocks to pragmatic thinking. Timid Senators from states with a partisan-split, perceived-to-be-conservative electorate are concerned about whether policy proposals look like the ideal they have in their minds of what people would derive from first principles (e.g. less gov’t the better) rather than from evidence and rational correction of manifest — not just theoretical — failures.

What people want are effective solutions to problems like a broken healthcare system. Solution = healthcare. Not ideological purity. The question is what can deliver the desired outcome. I believe that ultimately only a single-payer national health insurance structure can. I accept current legislative debate proceeds within some pretty severe constraints — ideological (fear of government), institutional (fear of power of insurance corporations), and political (fear of not getting reëlected). Single-payer is not a plausible program at the moment. It should be “on the table” along with Republican free-market nonsense to represent the full range of models. But within the range of legislation that could muster a majority, leadership needs to identify components that are pragmatically superior and to boldly push for that package. Ironically, Republican Scott Brown’s electoral victory in the Massachusetts special election for Ted Kennedy’s old seat in the Senate may be a blessing for HCR. The political possibilities have changed: a 60-Democrat supermajority is no longer even theoretically possible. Now the final push for HCR will likely need to use the procedure of budget reconciliation to bypass the filibuster (or rather “intent to filibuster”) and a renewed push for inclusion of a public option that could garner 51 votes. The White House and Democratic leadership needs to make this happen. The facts AND the popular support are on their side… just not the corporations. Hmm… turns out that matters. But as Obama faces a crisis of confidence he needs to deliver goods not just give out the goodies.

Obama is talking the talk. And that matters. A lot. But he is the president, not a pundit, and healthcare reform depends on him kicking ideological obstacles to the curb and walking the walk.


Speaking of ideological obstacles… Sarah Palin headlined the Tea Party Convention a week after Obama’s Q&A with Republicans. For the record… not necessarily for recommended viewing… especially during or shortly after eating:

The Tea Party represents a channeling of populist rage — a lot of it justifiable — into ideological fervor. This particular coalition seems mostly bound by anti-deficit theology: there is a great evil and if only we can the strength of faith and integrity necessary to face it, we’d be golden.

Asked about what her plan is given that we know the “Obama plan”…

“My plan is quite simple,” Palin answered. “To support those who support the foundation of our country when it comes to the economy. It is free market principles that reward hard work and personal responsibility.”

And on national security: “It’s easy to just kind of sum it up by repeating Ronald Reagan when he talked about the Cold War and we can apply it to our war on terrorism. We win. They lose, and we do all we can to win.” (NPR, Wknd Ed, 2/7/10)

Ever the anti-intellectual, Palin mocks Obama for his academic relationship to political knowledge.

“Because that’s not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this. They know we’re at war and to win that war we need a commander in chief and not a professor of law standing at the lectern.”

Meet the revived conservative talking point portraying Obama as an intellectual who is both elitist (thinks he knows better than us) and ineffective (doesn’t actually know what is necessary and doesn’t have the character to lead). In the populist logic, perceived electoral success trumps truth:

She also ribbed him for Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races last fall and in a Massachusetts Senate race last month, saying: “When you’re 0-3 you’d better stop lecturing and start listening.” (MSNBC)

There are some serious underlying questions of what political knowledge even means in a democracy and the Enlightenment rationalist answers to these question have a lot of holes in them. But the virtue of epistemic humility should not give way to political relativism. And one of the greatest threats of demagogic so-called populism is that it throws out an publicly useful knowledge and replaces it with insufficiently self-critical sentiments. As conservatives attempt to position Obama on the losing side of swelling populist rage expect more of this talking point about the dangerously professorial administration. This past week at CPAC, House GOP Leader John Boehner demonstrated that it is part of the message:

“Voters thought they were electing a commander in chief in 2008. Instead they got a professor who offers finger-wagging lectures.”

Boehner proudly relayed the scolding he had gotten from Obama in a private meeting. Extending the smack down of his Q&A with the House GOP, Obama apparently accused Boehner’s party of being the cynical band of nihilists they are… okay, that may have been the subtext… more specifically of scaring the American public about the state of the economy:

“I was in the White House for a meeting a few weeks back,” Boehner recalled. “We were talking about the economy and jobs and I was explaining that these Democrat policies, you know — cap and trade, national energy tax, government takeover of our health care system, card check, higher tax rates — all of this was paralyzing business owners because they had all of this uncertainty. And you know no small business owners can plan, invest or hire new workers in this kind of environment.

“But the president didn’t like it,” he added. “He looked at me and he slapped the table and said, ‘Boehner, it’s not my policies that are paralyzing these employers. It’s you Republicans who are scaring them.’ (Huffington Post)

The Republican narrative is not based in the facts at all. Even the conservative, free-market American Enterprise Institute credits Obama’s stimulus measures for a 3% growth in the economy over the past year compared to what they say would have been a 1% decline without it. Here is a simple picture of how the situation has turned around in the job market since Obama took office:

Organizing for America, the extension of Obama’s presidential campaign has produced a very simple illustration of the facts. There is a whole lot more to be said beyond such reductions, but any narratives than simply deny this picture need to be called out for their bad faith. People need to see the Bush/Obama Jobs Chart and more good faith presentations of fact like it.

Conservatives have mastered simplicity — even if it requires writing on your hand. But their messages make no attempt to engage with and correspond to evidence about how the world actually works.

Stephen Colbert calls out Sarah Palin for What She Is

You don’t see Palin offering a more compelling narrative about the trajectory of the economy, only negation: “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?”

Leave it to Stephen Colbert — following the controversy over Rahm Emanuel and then Rush Limbaugh’s use of the R-bomb — to declare that “Sarah Palin is Fucking Retarded.” Some truths can be simply put. This clip is amazing.

But what is so scary about the Tea Baggers and conservatives of various fundamentalism (free market, evangelical, imperialist, radical libertarian, etc.) is not how dumb they are, it’s how right they think they are. The core project of this blog is to elaborate the danger of this epistemic hubris and to try to cultivate understanding of the sort of discourse and political culture needed to combat this pathology. It does not just afflict conservatives. You see it holding back the economic team at the White House and it remains a potential liability of any bold politics left or right. But in the face of a largely pragmatic Obama Administration, trying to tackle urgent social issues, the problem needs to be diagnosed first and foremost among the ranks of conservative zealots.

On a parting note, I leave you with a segment from Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC. Maddow has been distinguishing herself as a smart, savvy, progressive journalist and pundit. Her concern for intellectual honesty is laudable. Among her coverage of the Tea Party Convention, she offered an informative and on-point lesson on the history of racist attempts to use “knowledge” to disenfranchise fellow Americans and to maintain blindly ideological and unconscionably unjust structures of social power.

In his address to the tea baggers, veteran racist asshole, Tom Tancredo, had the audacity of a dope to claim that Obama was elected due to the lack of a “civics literacy test” requirement for voting.

Maddow admonishes the cheering crowd against the illiberal dangers of this line of thinking. Worries do not arise out of aloof political theory. They are embedded in our history as a country, as a people maintaining civil society. We need to know this history. It’s lesson is that we cannot give into temptations to think in the present that we — that is, a faction of us — know enough to exclude the voices of citizens who disagree with us on the basis that they don’t know what we know.

Knowledge is powerful. It is vital for crafting progressive-pragmatic policy. And it can be dangerous when we cling it dogmatically, not recognizing the limits of our perspective. Sometimes we do need a lecture, as Obama and Maddow so ably demonstrate. But the core message needs to include the value of epistemic humility.


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  1. This is quite a perceptive and insightful analysis of the Q&A event Obama held.

  2. This article is so banal it should be flagged by Google as information pollution and chopped up in an internet-trawling garbage disposal program.

  3. Great piece, Ferris. Frank Talk sounds like the kind of guy who names a website Frank Talk because his name is Frank. Nuff said.

    • I considered writing about circular reasoning and calling it: “The Ferris Wheel”… nuf said

  4. [...] [1] President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at GOP House Issues Conference (Jan.  29, 2010), in Political Knowledge in an Era of Ungovernability: Obama, GOP and Tea Baggers, Humble Piety, Feb.  20, 2010, http://humblepiety.com/2010/02/20/political-knowledge-in-an-era-of-ungovernability-obama-gop-and-tea…. [...]

  5. I am happy the bill passed for sraeevl reasons, not the least of which the 2 kids at my school with cancer will not be denied treatment, they will not run out of benefits, and as adults, they can still get health care insurance. I am happy for my mom who will pay a little less for her prescriptions and won’t be denied coverage if her cancer ever returns. I like the idea that insurance companies’ finances must be transparent.Much to be happy about at my house

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