WASHINGTON -- If Barack Obama's presidential campaign was smooth and deep like the rivers, his first few weeks in Washington have been turbulent and shallow like the rapids. It began with the quick end of the Richardson nomination, revealing a vetting process with the thoroughness of a subprime loan application. Then came an inaugural address so flat that both supporters and detractors wondered if the flatness was intentional -- a subtle game of strategic mediocrity. Then the broad violation of an overbroad lobbying ban, which made no distinction between lobbying for the Iranian regime and lobbying against teenage smoking. Then a spate of IRS troubles, leaving the impression of an administration more interested in raising taxes than paying them.
These stumbles have had an almost theological effect among Republicans: The doctrine of Obama's political infallibility has been challenged. But the administration's setbacks -- particularly those on personnel -- are temporary, and easily reversed by a series of legislative victories that have already begun.
The initial period of the Obama administration, however, has provided hints of a long-term problem -- not one of incompetence, but of emptiness.
Obama partisans would doubtlessly call this "pragmatism." His inaugural address included one of the most prominent defenses of that political philosophy in American history. "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them," he informed Americans of old-fashioned ideological belief, "that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works. ... "
This approach has earned Obama praise for his prudence, independent thinking, epistemological modesty, empiricism, curiosity, results orientation, lack of dogmatism, distaste for extremism, willingness to compromise and insistence on nuance. He has been compared to William James and John Dewey, the heroes of American pragmatism.