Obama the Visionary Minimalist

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Thursday, November 06, 2008 at 3:59 pm
President-elect Barack Obama (WDCpix)

President-elect Barack Obama (WDCpix)

“And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help and I will be your president too.”

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.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

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.”

Ronald Reagan (Wikimedia)

Ronald Reagan (Wikimedia)

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.”

Comments

9 Comments

karela
Comment posted November 10, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

Wonderful and eye opening article!


Holly
Comment posted November 10, 2008 @ 9:44 pm

Color me dense, but I'm not figuring how Obama is a “visionary minimalist” when he's included America in every part of the discussion and by virtue of our recent election, the majority of our country agrees with the president elect's priorities. That being said, how is a call to service, sacrifice , obligation, and commitment “minimalist”.


VigneshRam
Comment posted November 11, 2008 @ 12:43 am

Well, Obama's shown himself to share a philosophy a lot of legal scholars hold (including Chief Justice Roberts, and Mr. Sunstein himself I believe), where you make sure that you can achieve consensus on narrow issues, rather than engage in ideological banter. Thanks Mr. Sunstein for this article.


dfronds
Comment posted November 11, 2008 @ 7:35 am

I agree with your assertion that Obama is an inclusionist. His stated goal is to remove the divisions that have left so many Americans feeling left out of the process. However I disagree that he is only looking for what to do. His focus has been clear. He intends to improve the fortunes of the middle class. Unfortunately he comes to office when the country is facing many great crises like the economic meltdown, the bleeding of our country's wealth and youth in Iraq & Afghanistan and global warming to name a few. His greatest attribute may be his ability to inspire many and mobilize them to create something greater than the parts. It's going to take the support and sacrifice of all Americans to overcome these obstacles and get the country back on track. Now is the time for true patriotism putting aside partisan divides and doing what is right for the country.


HorizonScanner
Comment posted November 14, 2008 @ 8:36 pm

Global Warming is a fraud intended as an overriding factor that demands that a socialism be imposed to solve it. It it weren't a fraud, scientific means would be developed and implemented.
Indeed, new businesses would develop these technologies. But, global warming as a subject of meteorological science is created by the weather of the solar system which starts at the Sun, in particular, with the sun spot cycle.

But, this kind of thinking is rejected out of hand by the RadLibs because, as I said, their agenda is political with the end being Socialism. Stalin needed Lysenko and that ersatz science to advance his socialism in the defunct USSR. In order to finally “convince” the American people, those who still see themselves in relation to our Founding and to founders like real gentlemen scientists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, brainwashing and miseducation in our schools will have to be implemented. Those who stand up and denounce this brainwashing are marginalized in the classroom by the advocates of Global Warming.

Watch what they do to this post if you don't believe me.


Hawaiian style
Comment posted February 15, 2009 @ 11:11 am

I'm sure you have heard the saying, “Your actions speak so loud I can hardly hear your words.”

Well Its getting hard to hear. FISA is still law including spying on Americans' Communications, torturers go unpunished, transparency and rendition is getting foggy, and Freedom of Information is just talk in light of the CIA and DOJ's actions.

Mr. President, brah wen start?


Hawaiianstyle
Comment posted February 15, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

I'm sure you have heard the saying, “Your actions speak so loud I can hardly hear your words.”

Well Its getting hard to hear. FISA is still law including spying on Americans' Communications, torturers go unpunished, transparency and rendition is getting foggy, and Freedom of Information is just talk in light of the CIA and DOJ's actions.

Mr. President, brah wen start?


Laughing out loud at you.
Comment posted April 13, 2010 @ 4:20 am

You fool, that isn't minimalism.


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Comment posted September 8, 2010 @ 2:07 am

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.


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