Saturday, June 28, 2008

Obama and "the vision thing"

As the U.S. political pendulum swings left, one residual effect of thirty years of right-wing dominance is the persistent meme that policies designed to arrest growing income inequality and invest in the common welfare are tired, stock, unimaginative, predictable.

Many journalists seem to think that skepticism about Obama's "liberal" policies is a badge of sophistication. In this week's Fortune, for example, Nina Easton casts Obama's economic plans this way:

His critics say that, unlike Reagan or Clinton, there's not much that is daring or innovative in his economic policies. The core of Obama's economic plan is

(a) more government spending: $65 billion a year for universal health insurance, $15 billion a year on alternative energy, $20 billion to help homeowners avoid default, $60 billion to bolster the nation's infrastructure, $10 billion annually to give students college tuition in exchange for public service, and on and on;

and (b) shifting the tax burden upward: ending the Bush tax cuts on families making more than $250,000 and raising payroll taxes on those same higher-income earners...
So we're given to believe that Reagan's tax cuts and cutbacks on social welfare programs were "innovative." Fair enough -- Obama, for one, has acknowledged that the Federal govenment Reagan attacked had become in some ways bloated and unaccountable. But now, with Americans' healthcare coverage in meltdown, inequality growing, infrastructure crumbling, and dependence on foreign oil more acute than ever, Obama's bid to 'restore balance' to our tax code and invest federal money in health insurance, alternative energy and infrastructure is neither "daring" nor "innovative"? That's a nonquestion. What's relevant is whether those policies are likely to be effective and whether he can get them implemented.

Obama's "innovation" lies less in specific policies than in broad goals and the ability to articulate those goals -- restoring fairness, sharing prosperity, sharing risk, devloping sustainable energy sources. His rhetorical gifts are crucial, but secondary. It's not that his policies sound good because his rhetoric soars. Rather, his rhetoric has power because his individual policies fit into a coherent strategic and philosophical framework.

That, I think, was the dispositive difference between Obama and Hillary -- a forest vs. trees difference. Whatever one's judgment about their characters, their intellectual gifts are complementary -- but Obama's have the greater scope. In debates and long interviews, Hillary really did display a more comprehensive grasp of policy detail -- listen to her, in the hourlong interview with the Argus (SD) Leader that became infamous for her last-minute assassination reference, riff about everything from Native American policy to the varieties of potential ethanol sources t Western water policy. Obama, on the other hand, has the vision thing in spades, and it's not fluff. All his policy proposals, including some dubious outliers like eliminating social security taxes for those earning under $50k, fit under broad, precisely articulated policy goals, as well-defined as his strategy for winning the nomination.

Obama's speeches move people because he always sets his policy proposals in a multi-layered context that spells out:
  • a broad goal
  • why that goal is consistent with American values and history (generally history preceding the past forty years)
  • how the policies addressed to the goal will correct missteps of the past eight (or thirty, or forty) years
  • what the effect of those policies will be
In past posts, I've tried to map out this kind of architecture, looking at Obama's use of history at and at the interlocking ideas underpinning his most ambitious speeches on the economy and foreign policy. The latter, an under-examined masterpiece delivered in Fayetteville, NC on March 19, is perhaps the best example of Obama's subordination of very specific policies to precisely articulated strategic imperatives. A close look at the four-part structure of the whole is here. For now, just consider the final part, which pivots from Obama's prescriptions for coping with al Qaeada and the Taliban to consider our broadest strategic challenges:

In addition to freeing up resources to take the fight to al Qaeda, ending the war in Iraq will allow us to more effectively confront other threats in the world - threats that cannot be conquered with an occupying army or dispatched with a single decision in the middle of the night. What lies in the heart of a child in Pakistan matters as much as the airplanes we sell her government. What's in the head of a scientist from Russia can be as lethal as a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. What's whispered in refugee camps in Chad can be as dangerous as a dictator's bluster. These are the neglected landscapes of the 21st century, where technology and extremism empower individuals just as they give governments the ability to repress them; where the ancient divides of region and religion wash into the swift currents of globalization.

Without American leadership, these threats will fester. With strong American leadership, we can shape them into opportunities to protect our common security and advance our common humanity – for it has always been the genius of American leadership to find opportunity embedded in adversity; to focus on a source of fear, and confront it with hope.

Here are just five ways in which a shift in strategy away from Iraq will help us address the critical challenges of the 21st century...

The five policies that follow are good ones - scroll down toward speech's end here. But look again at the first paragraph above. Obama defines the need, the scope, and the battlegrounds of soft power -- lyrically, imaginatively, substantive, comprehensively. As a 'scope of work' statement, this is just incomparable.

I'm sure Obama's flaws are manifold and the disappointments will be, too (though I hope and more than half believe that over time, major accomplishments will outweigh them). But the man has paid our electorate the compliment of appealing in a sustained way to the better angels of our nature. He's done it by making every speech a history lesson, a diagnosis of where we've gone wrong, a brief for a coherent sheaf of policies, a call to address tough challenges with vigorous action, and an expression of hope and faith that we will rediscover our ability to meet those challenges. That's why "yes we can" has resonance.

P.S. To indulge in a personal note: I started this blog in October as an examination of "how democracy works, how it malfunctions and self-corrects." Since January, it's been largely an "Obama blog," because I've come to believe (after leaning toward Hillary through '07) that he embodies a great experiment in "how democracy..self-corrects." I continue it in a kind of perpetual fear that I'm creating a record of credulity, self-delusion, naivete. As antidote, I've looked for opportunities to flag what I see as Obama missteps, e.g. here here and here. But I've continued in this vein because I believe, more than not, that the deeper naivete is to reject the possibility that a leader can be "transformational," can effect major turns in policy. As Obama points out, it has happened repeatedly in our history. It will continue to happen unless or until schlerosis in our Democratic machinery removes our ability to put a genuine choice before the electorate. This election strikes me as pretty good proof that that hasn't happened yet.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I loved this. Thanks so much for sharing so thoroughly -- and including the process by which you came to this hopeful, positive conclusion. A man after my own heart!!! :o)