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February 2009

Principles - Are they enough?

by Thomas G. Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's blog "Single Doubt"

4. Principles, a personal or specific basis of conduct or management: to adhere to one's principles; a kindergarten run on modern principles.

The other day I heard a caller on a “progressive” radio talk show questioning whether Obama’s willingness to have lunch with conservative writers such as William Kristol, George Will and Charles Krauthammer meant he was “abandoning his progressive principles.” Anyone who would even ask this question has no clue what Obama is about.

Obama stated repeatedly during the campaign that, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, he was not going to be a president that surrounded himself only with advisors who agreed with him. The fact that he has already chosen several people for cabinet posts who have been openly critical of the policies he espouses (i.e. Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State) is proof he is holding to this. And while it may seem galling to those on the left or the right when he doesn’t ostracize people on the other side of the political spectrum, sitting down and breaking bread with those who disagree with him is not an abandonment of his core principles. Talking to people who disagree with him is one of his core principles.

Far from being dismayed, I find it refreshing – and somewhat reassuring – that Obama has the political moxie to face ideologues like Kristol and Krauthammer who chuck cow pies at his policies in the press. As a citizen I find it easier to support a leader who has the strength of personality to surround himself with something other than mealy-mouth sycophants whose only job is to shout: “Good shot Mr. President!” as his ball slices into the duck weeds.

I have heard several people in the media – on both sides of the aisle – state that throughout his presidency, George W. Bush remained “true to his principles.” If one accepts that a core principle of Bush’s was not to listen to people he didn’t like, (“You’re either with us, or you’re against us”) then Bush was remarkably steadfast. Of course it’s piss easy to stay true to principles when no one questions or challenges them.

This raises an interesting Zen-like question: Namely, if no one questions or challenges your principles, are they really principles?

But I digress

So far, (after one week of being president) Obama’s moral and ethical principles have been evident and transparent. Signing orders to close Guantanamo and other secret prisons and eliminate torture and wiretapping from the arsenal of government are strong indications that Obama possesses a moral and ethical code that was absent from any decisions made by Bush. I’ll be very curious to see how Obama rationalizes the C.I.A. lobbing missiles at “militants” in Pakistan while at the same time trying to convince Israel and Palestine to quit doing the same thing in Gaza.

For all my support of Obama’s morals and ethics and his desire to be inclusionary in his decision making, I’m not convinced such principles are going to be enough to get us out of the mess we’re in. It’s all very well for Obama to lunch with liberals and neo-cons. It’s admirable for him to close prisons and stop torturing people. Transparency and honesty in government is long overdue. However, if the Obama administration can’t manage to put people back to work, reduce the deficit and the debt, or convince Congress to pass a health plan that works, then frankly all his listening, morals, and ethics won’t amount to a hill of succotash. With a trillion dollar deficit and some nine trillion dollars of debt, Obama is like the captain of a cardboard ocean liner that’s taking on water while steaming toward a field of rocks and icebergs. He can be as smart, logical, and inclusive as he likes but unless he figures out a way to order the damn helmsman to turn the boat around we’re still all likely to wind up in the drink.

There’s no putting a sugar coated spin on this. We are in a mess, a fiscal crisis. And in a crisis, effectiveness as a leader depends less on one’s ability to listen or even convince and more on one’s ability to command. Obama may be more eloquent and take more viewpoints into consideration than Bush but sooner or later he too is going to have to be a “decider,” even if that means ignoring the very opinions he has solicited. If he listens to everybody, we're all going to get soggy.

Ironically it is a case of getting wet that provides the best example of what I'm talking about. In the recent heroic water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 Capt. Chesley Sullenberger III has been feted as a hero, and rightfully so. His quick and bold decision to land his plane on the Hudson river was largely responsible for saving the lives of 150 passengers. But suppose he had asked the crew and passengers to get their input on whether he should try to make it to an airport or ditch in the river. What if he had entered into a conference call with a team of experts to consider the economic, environmental and legal ramifications of his decision? Or put in a call to Airbus to find out if the plane would withstand a water landing? The resulting disaster could have been truly mind numbing.

Okay, so running the country is a little more complex than flying a plane. It takes way more than one man making decisions to make it work. The point I’m trying to make is that in the long run I don’t think Obama's moral or ethical principles are going to determine whether his presidency is successful or not. Our last president was incredibly "principled" and look at the elephant sized pile of poo he left us in. What is important is not how good a listener Obama is or how moral or ethical he is. What is important is whether he can manage to motivate the people around him to patch the leaky boat we’re in and get us turned around and headed toward open water again. Much as I approve of his principled stance on issues of the day, I'm afraid What will be the determining factor in his success as prsident will be how good a decider he is.

Oh, and meeting with Krauthammer and Kristol? Not so impressive. Refereeing a tag-team grudge match between Maddow/Olbermann and O’Reilly/Limbaugh? Now that, I’d pay money to see.