The Weltanschauungen of Obama and Dayton


The German word “Weltanschauung” refers to a world view. The power of an Weltanschauung was on display last week in two events–one involving President Obama responding to critics of his presidency and specifically his foreign policy, the other in Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton delivering his State of the State address. While the media largely covered these stories as political or campaign speeches, they missed the deeper meaning or world views that both contained.

First, consider a New York Times article this week where President Obama responds to his critics, especially John McCain, who assail him for his reluctance to use military force to respond to political crises across the world. McCain and others have criticized Obama for being indecisive in Syria, Iran (and nuclear weapons), the China-Japan dispute, and now again in Ukraine and Russia. Obama declared: “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

Obama and McCain, as I argued back in 2008 during their presidential contest, are generational politicians, affected by events that helped shape their generation’s view of foreign policy. For McCain the image of him and his generation is that of 1938–It is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich with an agreement to concede Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Chamberlain’s speech is infamous, with him declaring “I believe it is peace for our time…” Soon after this speech Hitler invaded Poland and WW II commenced.

Chamberlain’s speech is mocked as naivete. It is a message that many of McCain’s generation took as a message that we should never appease dictators since they cannot be trusted. All that they understand is force and power. The message of WW II is that American Military might succeeded, the failure of Vietnam is that we did not use enough military might, and that the Cold War was won because of American military superiority. This is the Weltanschauung of McCain.

Conversely, there is a second video clip–that of US helicopters evacuating the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975 after the fall of Vietnam. It is a video about the limits and failures of US military power and about why war and force is not always the answer. This is the video clip that affected many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, including Obama.

To Understand Obama and McCain one needs to understand how appeasement and Saigon affect their thinking and that of their generation. Both events are world views, paradigms that define how many people of each of their generations define and interpret the world. McCain sees Assad and Putin as Hitlers, negotiation is only appeasement and the only message either of them understand is force. Obama is thus foolish to think that negotiation with them will solve anything. Conversely, Obama reacts against war and force, especially unilateral action, seeing it potentially as backfiring. Obama’s world view is reinforced by Afghanistan and Iraq.

Both Obama and McCain are blinded by their Weltanschauungen. Neither can see beyond their video clips to see when and how negotiation and force (or at least its threat) combine together to form an effective foreign policy. Moreover, Obama’s faith in talks and not threats also defines his domestic policy of dealing with Congress–an infinite faith in negotiation and talk. Obama bristles when negatively compared to Lyndon Johnson, the master president when it comes to strong arming both friends and foes into deals. Obama is no LBJ and he cannot be one–that is just not his Weltanschauung about how politics and the world operates.

Mark Dayton’s Minnesota

Mark Dayton’s State of the State address was widely reported as a campaign speech. It described what he promised as candidate, what he has done, and what he hopes to do if re-elected. But reporters missed a deeper meaning. It was the Weltanschauung of Dayton, a view that defends the role of the state in improving the quality of life of Minnesotans. To me the most important line in the whole speech came near the beginning. After describing some of the policies of his administration and the role he sees that they had in job creation, Dayton declares: “

Some people believe there is no role for government in private sector expansion and job creation. To see that they’re mistaken, just look around Minnesota.”

Dayton’s speech presented the case for government. It is the case for how government can make a positive impact in our lives. It is an ideology that once brought us the Minnesota Miracle, the Good Life of the 1970s that put the state and Governor Anderson on the cover of Time magazine. His view stands on contrast to his Republican rivals who have a different view. Kurt Zellers stated his view well: So, that would be my vision, getting government out of the way, off the backs and out of the pockets of all Minnesotans.” Government does not create jobs, the private sector does.

Dayton’s speech set up not just a contrast between himself and his opponents but also a contrast between rival views of Minnesota and government. He sees his Weltanschauung as having state government critical to Minnesota’s good life, while the opponent’s view will not produce the quality of life Minnesota once knew and which it can have again. It is a retrospective world view that takes us back in time before Reagan. For the Republicans, their world view is also retrospective, echoing the spirit of Reagan while perhaps in reality taking us even further back to a pre New Deal era. Dayton and his Republican opponents have world views that capture their generations, speaking to their visions and beliefs about the worlds they experienced and the one’s they would like to see.

Weltanschauungen are powerful lenses that define our worlds. In Obama and Dayton we see great examples of both and how they define their performances and views of the world and state.