Robert Goodin and the Settling of a President

First the Republicans had to settle for Mitt Romney. And today, for those in both parties still not feeling inspired by either candidate, it’s time to settle once again. But is that really such a bad thing? Robert Goodin‘s On Settling, called by The Wall Street Journal a “gentle meditation on a subject that is larger and more controversial than it may at first seem”, suggests that although we live in a restless culture that worships a ‘shoot for the stars’ ideal, settling is actually how we get anything important done. Life is about choice; Goodin says it’s time to make one. If you still need inspiration to head to the polls, read his post here:



The Settling of a President

Robert Goodin


The story of the 1968 presidential campaign, after the dead bodies and tear gas were cleared away, was “the selling of the president.”  The intrusion of marketers and big money into politics, an increasingly familiar phenomenon over the intervening decades, has ratcheted up several notches yet again this year.  Still, the real story of the this election lies elsewhere, in “the settling of a president.”

If Dr King was the dreamer and Senator Obama the dream, President Obama is perforce the doer.  Soaring rhetoric inspires, but hard slog is what gives words practical effect.  As president, Obama settled in and settled down to work, leaving the lofty speeches behind.

As President Reagan said of naps, so too President Obama could well say of speeches:  you can’t have one every day.  Many who were attracted to the inspirational messaging find themselves bored by the mundane doing.  In one way, that is to mistake the nature of the job.  If it’s a weekly message of hope that you’re after, take yourself off to church, not the president’s press conference.

In another way, it is right to be disappointed that as president Obama has laid so very low rhetorically. Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt’s book of that title taught JFK, is the power to persuade.  Ironically, given his gifts, failing to explain and persuade people of the fundamental principles underlying his policies is perhaps the greatest failing of Obama in his first administration.  With congressional opponents who have sworn an oath of blind intransigence, appealing over their heads to the people at large is the only way forward.

As president, Obama has settled down not just rhetorically, but in other ways as well.  Any president – indeed any one of us – must settle for what we can realistically be done.  Of course we shouldn’t set our aspirations too low and settle too soon or for too little.  But inevitably, we have to accept some unfortunate features of the world as fixed, for now, in order to focus our energies elsewhere.  Attempting everything at once we would accomplish nothing at all.

The whole point of settling in some dimensions, however, is to enable us to strive more successfully in others.  Settling in every dimension is just plain “giving up.” Grubby deals are needed to get things done, anywhere.  But if there is nowhere Obama as the Great Compromiser is willing to draw a line in the sand, nothing he is simply not prepared to settle for, then the dream invariably seeps into the sand.

Citizens settle in an election, too, however.  Life is a series of choices among imperfect options.  Despite all the disappointed hopes, I will for my part settle for Obama.  He’s the best one on offer.  I’ll hope for better, if not in his wake (I do not expect to see a more able person in the White House in my lifetime), then perhaps in his second term.


Robert E. Goodin is professor of government at the University of Essex and distinguished professor of philosophy and social and political theory at Australian National University.