Obama the Ideologue?

One of the most interesting moments of President Obama's tete-a-tete with House Republicans on Friday was when he said, "I'm not an ideologue." He was greeted with laughter, which led him to reply, somewhat incredulously, "I'm not." I'm personally sure that what was going through his head when he heard the snickers was, "Are you frackin' kidding me?" -- yes, he's a sci-fi geek -- "How many compromises do I have to make before you people stop thinking I'm a socialist?"

In our common parlance, an "ideologue" isn't just someone who has an ideology in which they believe firmly -- it's someone who is blind to practical realities and the power of reason and simply pursues that ideology to extreme ends. I happen to think that no reasonable observer of politics could conclude that Barack Obama is an ideologue. To take the example most readily at hand, a liberal ideologue would have insisted that if we are to reform health care, it's single-payer or nothing. And yet Obama advocated a reform that would give private insurance companies millions of new customers (rather than putting them out of business) and doesn't fundamentally alter the employer-based system. He made all kinds of compromises along the way, including jettisoning the public option (just as progressives feared he would), in order to achieve some kind of reform, even if it was far less than he might have liked. That's pretty much the opposite of how an ideologue acts.

But to Republicans, those things don't mean much. Why? It's not because they're being insincere (not on this question, anyway). I'm sure they truly think he is an ideologue. It's because of the way we process, categorize, and weigh information. Not only do we seek out information that validates our prior beliefs, but when presented with information that contradicts those beliefs, we discount its importance. A conservative who starts from the presumption that Obama is an ideologue isn't going to be dissuaded if you point out the compromises in his health-care plan, or tell him that Obama has largely continued George W. Bush's policies on the treatment of terrorism suspects, or observe that he has treated the big banks with kid gloves. To the conservatives, those are irrelevant details that don't detract from the big picture -- much as liberals don't think that the fact that Bush greatly increased aid to Africa suggests that his foreign policy was not so neo-connish as you might otherwise think (and no, I'm not arguing that Bush wasn't plenty neo-connish). We find that contradictory information unpersuasive, and we're much less likely to recall it than the information we find more amenable.

One thing we know is that those GOP House members chuckling at the idea that Obama isn't an ideologue are right in line with their base. According to a new Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll, 63 percent of Republicans think Obama is a socialist, only 42 percent think he was born in the United States, and 39 percent want him to be impeached. (For what, you ask? For whatever.) You could look at those results as the predictable outcome of an atmosphere in which partisan lines are clearly drawn, and everyone knows which side they're on.

On the other hand, you could also conclude that as a group, Republicans have simply gone stark raving mad. And while it's probably true that they're more likely to believe outlandish things about their opponents than liberals are, the spread of those ideas is greatly helped by the strength of the conservative media. When something pops up, whether a factual claim ("Obama was born in Kenya!") or an interpretation ("Obama is a socialist!"), it gets repeated over and over on talk radio and places like Fox News, until your average conservative has been exposed to it dozens if not hundreds of times. Liberals' lack of that quantity of media megaphones means that they just don't hear the similar charges that come from their side. For instance, do you remember in 2000, when Michael Moore suggested that George W. Bush was literally "a functional illiterate"? Probably not, because there just weren't that many places where the charge could be repeated and you could hear it.

Problem is, the ideological narrowing of the Republican Party that has taken place in recent years means that a disproportionate share of the minority in Congress is made up of your Michelle Bachmanns and your Louie Gohmerts, who are even more resistant to contradictory evidence than those in possession of all their faculties. Obama could resign his office, donate the proceeds from Dreams From My Father to the American Enterprise Institute, and get a 10-inch-high tattoo of Milton Friedman's face on his chest, and a healthy chunk of the GOP caucus would still think it was a diabolical scheme to bring Leninism to America.

-- Paul Waldman

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