Obama’s Ethics Landscape

As Barack Obama takes the nation’s helm, his greatest challenge can be summed up in a single word: ethics.
Really? Not economics? No. The nation’s economic crisis already has outgrown itself. The financial recession has morphed into an ethics recession. Increasingly, as the Madoff case makes clear, the core issue is no longer money and wealth, but character and integrity.
On the surface, of course, Obama’s task will be to bring together the fiscal wizards who can rekindle markets and grow assets. But the underlying challenge will be to find wizards of integrity — canny financial minds imbued with the moral authority to rebuild the nation’s shattered sense of responsibility. The goal is not just to get people to spend. It’s to get them to trust — a requirement for any market to function.

Fortunately, Obama’s greatest resource can also be summed up as ethics. He comes into office on a surge of public goodwill rooted in the perception of his moral character. A November Harris Poll found that 51 percent of voters pegged moral values as “very important in deciding which candidate to vote for.” Asked what they meant by “moral values,” most voters pointed to such personal characteristics as honesty and integrity, rather than to social or religious issues (like same-sex marriage or abortion) or political issues (like immigration or the Iraq war). The strength of that goodwill, evident in the crowds converging on Washington for this week’s inauguration, is evident also in the numbers. The Gallup Organization’s polling last week put Obama’s approval rating at 78 percent, up 10 points since the November election and easily eclipsing the pre-inaugural favorables for George W. Bush (62 percent in January 2001) and Bill Clinton (66 percent in 1993).
It shouldn’t surprise us, of course, that a public deeply troubled by an unprecedented ethics recession is hungering for a leader of integrity. But are his admirers endowing him with impossible attributes? Are they holding him to unattainable standards? Are they setting him up for failure?
I don’t think so, largely because Obama may be one of our most transparent presidents. Unlike Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, there doesn’t appear to be any dark undercurrent swirling below a sociable surface. Nor does he seem to have difficulties aligning reality with truth-telling (Clinton’s challenge) or with ideology (Bush’s problem). To be sure, Obama’s transparency has been heightened by the dissection he endured under the microscope of an exhaustive campaign, but it also grows out of his very nature. Although he possesses one of the most intelligent and nuanced political minds of our era, he appears to be, paradoxically, a surprisingly uncomplicated thinker — dedicated to clarity, decidedly principled, and determinedly pragmatic.

But what about the moral landscape he’s entering? Are the challenges simply too daunting, too demanding of compromise, too corrosive of integrity? Not if he and his administration grasp three things:
1. Given the public’s mood, the issues he faces will need to be framed in moral terms. No solution will feel complete unless it is articulated in the language of ethics and integrity. The argument can’t be phrased in the old ideological polarizations of talk radio (”I’m absolutely right, so therefore you’re dead wrong and stupid to boot!”). It must be delivered in the new language of right-versus-right thinking, where each side receives a fair hearing and the dignity of civil discourse is respected.
2. Such thinking requires penetrating moral analysis of the world’s toughest dilemmas. Some, like the pending question of whether Israel committed war crimes during its invasion of Gaza, will center on the age-old tension between justice and mercy. Others, like the economic bailout, will devolve into questions of short-term benefits versus long-term needs. Still others, like the war in Afghanistan, will focus on the difference between the truth on the ground and the loyalty to certain leaders, policies, or positions. Finally, a wide range of issues — healthcare among them — will pit the needs of the individual against the rights of the community. Such issues can’t be addressed as black-and-white, right-versus-wrong problems; whichever side you’re on, the other side has too much moral credibility to be ignored or shouted down.
3. Resolving these dilemmas requires a consistent set of resolution principles. Under Clinton, the tendency was toward an ends-based, utilitarian principle, where ethics meant that you did the greatest good for the greatest number. In the Bush administration, the decision making was more rule-based, Kantian, and ideological: You invoked whatever precept you wanted everyone to follow, with less regard for immediate consequences. Obama well may draw on his empathetic, community-organizing days to invoke a care-based principle of reciprocity and the Golden Rule, asking what he would want others to do to him.
Given the ethics landscape, this is no country for moral cowardice. The world Obama campaigned in last spring has lost its moorings. It’s searching desperately for its self-confidence, its trust in others. It’s ready for an ethics revolution, not just an inauguration.

Jan 19th, 2009 • 
by Rushworth M. Kidder


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