Obama the visionary minimalist
So said President-elect Barack Obama, in one of the most revealing sentences in his victory speech Tuesday. In his rejection of standard political divisions, his emphasis on “e pluribus unum,” and his gracious inclusion of those whose support he has “yet to earn,” we can find a clue to what makes our new president-elect so remarkable — perhaps even unique in the nation’s long history.
Some public officials are minimalists. They do not like to reject the fundamental commitments of their fellow citizens. On environmental questions, sex equality, national security and economic policy, they try to bracket our deepest disagreements. They seek to obtain a consensus on what to do — not on why to do it.
Minimalists favor their approach because they think, as a pragmatic matter, it is most likely to work. They also insist that their approach, putting fundamental differences to one side, shows respect to their fellow citizens.
Political minimalism has a distinguished tradition in U.S. politics. In recent history, President George H.W. Bush stands as the leading minimalist. To the extent that Bush succeeded, especially in foreign affairs, it was because he enlisted diverse people, and diverse views, on behalf of the policies he chose.
Other public officials are visionaries. They have a large-scale vision about the direction in which the nation should go. They believe in big steps, not small ones.
Above all, these visionaries seek to alter the nation’s self-conception. In changing policy on the economy, or on national defense, they are entirely comfortable with asserting that their vision is the superior one and that alternative visions should be rejected. When they succeed, they transform how the nation understands itself.
Our greatest presidents — including Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — have been visionaries. In recent American history, President Ronald Reagan stands as the leading visionary.
Obama is something new in American politics — and not just for the obvious reasons. He is a visionary minimalist. This is a key both to his extraordinary campaign and to his unique promise. It even helps explain his conception of public service.
Obama’s minimalism lies in his consistent rejection of the standard social divisions — between red states and blue states, liberal and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. As he said in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”
Obama shows unfailing respect for those with competing views. In designing policies — on climate change, tax reform, energy conservation, foreign policy — he attempts to produce solutions that will accommodate, rather than repudiate, the defining commitments of his fellow citizens. Even on the most divisive issues of separation of church and state, Obama favors approaches that will attract support from all sides.
But Obama is a visionary too. Unlike most minimalists, he is willing to think big.
When he speaks of change, he means to include ambitious plans for energy independence, universal health care and educational reform. No less than Reagan, he wants to transform the nation’s self-understanding. He seeks not only to go beyond the divisions of the 1960s, but also to synthesize deeper strands in our history.
Thus Obama recognizes and celebrates the individualist strain in American culture. But he draws attention to a counterpoint — one that emphasizes mutual obligations.
As he said in 2004 and has often repeated since, “If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. . . . It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work.”
With the election of a new president, I expect that we will soon enter a novel period of American life, in which a commitment to public service, sacrifice and a sense of mutual obligations will play a far larger role. That commitment will be anything but partisan. It will be felt in red states and blue states alike.
And it will be made possible, and fueled, by the visionary minimalism of America’s president-elect.
Cass R. Sunstein is Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard Law School. He will be the Harry Kalven Visiting Professor at University of Chicago Law School in January 2009. His most recent book, which he co-wrote with Richard Thaler, is “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” His books include “Are Judges Political? An Empirical Analysis of the Federal Judiciary” and “The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever.”
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