Friday, June 20, 2008

Obama a Promise Breaker or Political Pragmatist?

Senator Obama has been widely criticized as a promise-breaker on public finance, thus despoiling his image as a reformer and apostle of a new politics. While recognizing that the reason he did it was that he can raise much more money than Senator McCain and thus boost his chances of getting elected, critics concluded that Obama is just another politician like all the rest.

Journalists are reputed to be cynics, yet one has to laugh at how often they function as absolutists and moral purists on this and many other points. It is all or nothing, saint or sinner, pure or impure. All most could focus on was his flip-flopping and how it belied his alleged aim to transform Washington's way of doing things.

One can look at it this way, but if we assume a larger perspective, the final verdict may be rendered differently. Recognizing that politics is the art of the possible and that one has to gain power before one can exercise it, I have argued in these pages that a worthy politician needs to move between idealism and realism, principles and pragmatism. Obviously, on any given issue at a specific time, one can argue where the praiseworthy politician ought to be located on this double continuum.

Maybe Obama is an idealist who wants to change things for the better. Maybe he does have core principles that he will not abandon. Maybe in the case of campaign finance reform at this particular moment, he felt that realism and pragmatism dictated his decision in the light of the fact that the election may be close and he will need every advantage he can get.

This perspective does not necessarily validate his choice or render it any less regrettable. One can argue with it. Nevertheless, a larger perspective might save us from from a superficial one-issue moral absolutism that obscures deeper truths. Only a comprehensive pattern emerging over time gives us a basis for a sound judgment.

My own view is that the moral imperative that Barack Obama be elected president is so overwhelming that it justifies his pragmatic decision on campaign finance at this juncture in history.

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