The transition from George Bush to Barack Obama was bound to be of interest to philosophers for reasons that are far from exclusively political. Bush’s advanced degree was in business administration, Obama’s was in law. Bush got mediocre grades at best, Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review. Bush spent his first adult decades dabbling unsuccessfully in oil and baseball, Obama wrote two books and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Bush made a virtue of making decisions quickly and then sticking to them no matter what, Obama seeks out disagreement and advice from people who don’t share his politics. Bush insisted on absolute loyalty during his presidency, at the Harvard Law Review, Obama annoyed his progressive friends by appointing only one of them as an editor compared to three conservative Federalists. The differences between the previous administration and the new one, in short, are far more than purely political, and in fact radiate out in many directions.
It seems difficult to dispute that many of the differences are likely to be seen as improvements by most academics and intellectuals even if they are politically conservative. The shift from a pervading suspicion (real or assumed) of the intellect to the reverse of that can hardly help but appeal to philosophers.
The result on philosophy blogs was sometimes plain content-free giddiness. At Feminist Philosophers “Jender” did a post titled “At Long Last…” saying she had started a list of ways to complete that sentence but they all seemed entirely inadequate. “And I imagine we all have our own favourite completions, ranging from the angrily prosaic (we have a President who was ELECTED) to the more idealistic.”
Steve Gimbel, at Philosophers’ Playground, sympathised with comedians who mourned the loss of Bush, solicited Obama jokes, and offered a few himself. “Since Obama’s election, relations have gotten much closer between the US and Great Britain. The English are now less self-conscious about Prince Charles’ ears.” Not a goldmine for comedy, then.
Brian Leiter did have a political view; he was “pleasantly amused” that Obama mentioned non-believers in his inaugural address when “I know that, deep down, Obama, as an old Nietzsche Man, can’t believe any of that religious nonsense,” but he noted that it’s far more important “that Obama has now chosen top legal officials who actually believe in the rule of law, human dignity, and individual rights. No wonder the reactionary Chief Justice Roberts choked when delivering the oath of office!”
Actually, however, it is some wonder if Chief Justice Roberts in fact really does not believe in the rule of law, which is usually considered at least as much a conservative value as a progressive one. A better way of putting it is that it’s just a sane value, and thus one that cuts across political affiliation and especially party loyalty.
Mark Kleiman of The Reality-Based Community wrote a post- inauguration piece on “President Obama, civic republican”, arguing that the central point of Obama’s inaugural address was “its appeal back to the civic republican tradition of Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush, which emphasised public virtue rather than individual prosperity.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all had civic-republican tendencies of thought, Kleiman said, but Hamilton ended up prevailing. Obama is “not so one-sided as to neglect Hamiltonian wisdom,” but he seems intent on righting the balance, “on reminding people of what they should do rather than what should be done for them, on substituting ‘Follow me!’ as a political slogan for the now-conventional ‘Soooo-eeeeeeeeee! Here pig pig pig pig pig!’”
Tibor Machan saw not so much a civic republican emphasis on virtue as an imposition of large goals on people at the expense of their own smaller, private plans. Quoting the inaugural address on “the scale of our ambitions” and “big plans”, Machan took exception to Obama’s “implicit assertion that what matters in a good society is that there be some kind of large scale ambition afoot, some sort of big plan,” saying that it smacked to him of “those famous Five Year Plans that the Soviet Union was constantly rolling out and conscripting everyone to serve.” What the public good amounts to in a free society, he argued, is “that everyone’s rights are secured so they may all go about their big or small plans without being driven by some leader, king, tsar or ‘Fuhrer’.”
Machan also objected to Obama’s shout-out to “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” on the grounds that it “continues the misimpression that the worthy kind of work must be physical labour.” Machan urged that “the work done by entrepreneurs and inventors and architects, work that’s largely intellectual and not so physical must not be overlooked” and concluded by saying no thanks: “for the President of the United States of America it is really somewhat out of line to make it appear that what most of us need is for him to show us his care.”
The civic republicans and the private planners should have a lot to talk about in the next few years.