Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nudging toward Bethlehem: Obama's theory of governance

In December, I noted that when asked what he hoped to accomplish in the first two years of his presidency Obama was both modest and ambitious, in that he set expectations for substantive progress on a broad front of issues while also emphasizing that on each front he was aiming to change course rather than effect radical, immediate change.

Tonight, in his hundredth day press conference, Obama elaborated that conception into a theory of leadership that extends decades rather than years:
This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.
This remake of the tiredest of metaphors works on two tiers. Obama was talking about both the impact of policies that might be enacted in the near future and about the method by which a President shapes national policy. With regard to method, this "ship of state(ment)" followed a more immediate response to Jeff Zeleny's question, "how has the presidency humbled you?" Here was the prelude:
Humbled by the -- humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry of American life and there are a lot of different power centers. And so I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want -- (laughter) -- or -- (chuckles) -- or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line. And so, you know, what you do is to make your best arguments, listen hard to what other people have to say and coax folks in the right direction.
The theory of governmance expressed here seems in tune with that laid out in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. Methodologically, to "coax" is to nudge. On the policy level, Obama speaks often about creating the right incentives to shape behavior, whether through tax cuts or regulation or medical outcomes research. Fundamental change by degrees is what he's after.

The image of moving the ocean liner a few degrees also casts a retroactive light on what many considered a moment of hubris, Obama's peroration on the night of the final Democratic primary:
If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals. Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
While the change envisioned is almost apocalyptic, note the constant repetition of the qualifier "began to." The time horizon is longer, and the changes envisioned are greater, but the process is the same: catalyzing, beginning, changing direction. Can you be a messianic pragmatist?

1 comment:

  1. Can you be a messianic pragmatist? excellent question! i would say..either that..or a martyr.