Monday, January 14, 2008

Obama Follows Big Words with Small Steps

Of all the candidates, I find Barack Obama to be the most enigmatic (which is why I keep writing about him). I am certain he his not a con man but I am not at all sure what realities prop up his rhetoric. Is his earnestness a product of naiveté or does it come from a deep wisdom about America and our government?

Maybe it’s neither. Maybe Obama is simply pulling off the most difficult of all political maneuvers – appearing optimistically revolutionary while being decidedly wonkish. Newsweek has an enlightening profile of Obama and his real-world achievements. Read the whole piece, but this line is its essence:

Though in speeches he sounds like an idealistic revolutionary out to take back the capital, Obama's record suggests he is actually more of an incrementalist.

Newsweek reveals a number of incidents where Obama has chosen pragmatism over idealism, preferring to hammer out a compromise rather than play the usual zero-sum game. He defines success as any forward movement, however small, toward his goals.

Over the last decade plus, both political parties have followed a scorched-earth policy, opting for total victory or suffering total defeat. Our nation is not better for it and could certainly use more pragmatism. However, read the article and tell me if you think Obama is better suited for the White House or Majority Leader in the Senate?

Take away his golden tongue and Obama is a mainline liberal who has shown an aptitude for combining persuasion and compromise to achieve incremental change. His rhetoric is made for primetime but his political temperament is more the stuff of C-Span. That’s not to say he wouldn’t make a decent president – just that those who vote for him need to look behind the big speeches and understand that by “change” Obama almost certainly means “small, drawn-out steps towards change.”

Obama may be right that, in today’s political environment, the only way to achieve meaningful change is through baby steps. But I’d really like to see his rousing oratory backed up by a Rooseveltian sense of the possible. Smart, unifying governance does not have to mean narrow maneuvers. There is room to strive valiantly and dare greatly. So far, all I’ve heard from Obama are well-written platitudes. Where are the visionary ideas? Where’s the audacity? Perhaps that’s just not who Obama is.

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Blogger bucyrus said...

Oh, DUDE! True dat. Almost like you said what I've been thinking..I'm sure he's not a con man too, and yet I question the substance.

Been saying some of the same things over at centerfield. I'll try to get round to giving you a quick plump tomorrow. Not that it'll generate much if any traffic, but hey.

kranky kritter

10:57 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

First, you are right in the sense that Obama's temperament tends to lean a bit more conservative than one would think. Meaning he's skeptical of making sweeping changes. This isn't that he doesn't think they're necessary. But he is worried that radically changing a system could have unintended consequences that we can't really prepare for or anticipate. In that sense he sounds more like a conservative than a liberal.

However, that doesn't mean that some of his proposals would only produce incremental changes. Look through his various policy positions over at his issues section, and you would be hard pressed to argue with me that the changes he outlines in energy, health care, and other fields, is in any way small.

One area where is definitely showing forward and outside the box thinking is the area of technology, which if implemented would allow for far greater government transparency than we've seen before.

Obama is skeptical of making big changes, but he is still willing. Just more cautious and conservative than many of his fellow liberal peers. And it is this very conservative temperament that makes me trust his ability to push trans formative progressive legislation than other liberals. Plus, I think the reason that Obama hasn't pushed for more sweeping changes is because he doesn't feel that we had created the consensus within the American public that would be necessary to push through such legislation. Because the government and the public at large has been so divisive, any radical change would almost inevitably have to be watered down and compromised to push it through a divided congress. It is only when the President has the backing of the American people on his side that one can push through such change without the need to compromise ones principles. Which is why Obama focuses over and over again on the need to unite the country. These aren't just happy words he says to make people feel better about him. He believes it is absolutely crucial if we are going to be able to push the kind of reform that is necessary at this time.

12:44 PM  
Blogger bucyrus said...

That's all well and good Jeff, but the fundamental dynamic remains unchanged. Why in the world ought we to believe that Obama can unite the country on the basis of vague positive generalities, and then enjoy the extension of this support to specific instances?

Seems unrealistic to me. My sense of human nature is that folks will have no problem saying things like this:

"Boy, that Obama ia great guy but I don't want to pay higher income taxes."

Or "Barack's a swell guy but gas prices are already too high without his risky energy policy. "

Or "Barack is my man, but I'm not supporting waiting 3 more years to collect social security."

{bear in mind that in the above I am not speaking directly to any policy Obama supports, I'm just making a point about human nature)

You seem to think people are going to just trust him and go along. My experience is that the moment when folks stop trusting and going along is the moment when someone proposes taking some of the butter off of their bread.

IOW, you sound naive to me. People who vote have a laser focus on their bread and butter. I'm skeptical of the idea that they'll close their eyes and trust Obama to feed them something delicious.

But what do I know? We'll see.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


Interestingly, I focused on his reform ideas last week and found them to be the most compelling reason for independents to support Obama.

But outside that, I don't see any policies that are particularly different from the Democratic platform. He doesn't have ideas that the whole country is going to rally around. He has the usualy liberal ideas that he will apparently try to implement with persuasion and compromise. That's not a bad approach (in fact, it'd be refreshing as compared to the current administration).

But his notion of change seems to be more one of temperment than anything else. I don't know if Obama's supporters know what they'd get if their guy gets elected. Maybe they do (you certainly do). I don't think he's purposefully hiding who he is, just that his rhetoric makes him seem visionary when he's more of a wonkish legislator.

5:11 PM  

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