"I am not an ideologue," President Obama insisted at his truly refreshing confab with the Republican caucus in Baltimore last Friday. When he heard some incredulous murmurs and chuckles from the audience in response to the idea that the most sincerely ideological president in a generation is no ideologue, he added a somewhat plaintive, "I'm not."
The president's defensiveness isn't surprising. He holds his self-definition as a pragmatist dear, and not just because it polls well.
It's clear from interviews that he is fond of the notion that he is above ideological squabbles and is a clear-eyed appraiser of facts and adjudicator of political disagreements. He's described himself as a "pragmatist," even a "ruthless pragmatist," countless times.
The evidence offered that Obama is no ideologue rests almost entirely on two contentions: He has annoyed some members of his ideological base, and because he says so.
Here, for instance, is New York Times columnist David Brooks, an Obama confidant and champion of Obama's nonideological street cred, asserting that Obama is loyal only to facts, evidence and logic (a theme Obama echoed in his Q&A with the GOP). Obama, Brooks writes, "is beholden to no ideological camp, and there is no group in his political base that he has not angered at some point in his first year."
If this gruel were any thinner, it would be water. Every president annoys his base. Are we therefore to believe that no president has ever been an ideologue? And how has Obama angered his base? Not by tacking to the center but by not going fast enough in pursuit of their shared goals.
As for Obama's personal testimony, so what? Is this the one instance in American history when a politician's self-serving statements are to be taken at face value? Besides, how many times have we heard from the left that right-wing ideologues are in denial about what "really" drives them (the answer, we're frequently told: greed, racism, homophobia, etc.). Is denial only a conservative malady? Certainly not.
Of course Obama is an ideologue. The important question is whether he is sufficiently self-aware to recognize the truth.
I, for one, would be horrified to learn that the president is working from the assumption that ideological biases are something only other people have. That is the surest route to hubris and groupthink (which might explain Obama's political predicament).