Friday, February 22, 2008

"The Obama Delusion" Delusion

On Feb. 20, Robert Samuelson launched an assault on The Obama Delusion, claiming not that Obama's campaign is light on policy but that his policy agenda is "completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems." There is, Samuelson says, a "hugh and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views."

This attack misapprehends the relationship between Obama's politics -- his policy prescriptions -- and his metapolitics -- his bid to change the political process. Samuelson complains that what Obama freely admits is mainly a consensus Democratic agenda is nothing but a tired "goody bag." Obama, however, is not claiming unique originality in crafting the Democratic agenda -- but rather, the political skills to get that agenda passed and to change the political process so that the agenda is not destroyed in the passing.

Samuelson may think it would be old, tired, partisan politics to pass universal healthcare, but most Americans would regard doing so as an epochal, game-changing accomplishment. Hence a key tenet of Obama's appeal -- that this is a moment in which the right Democrat can seize on a leftward swing in the electorate and build a working majority to achieve core Democratic goals: universal healthcare coverage; reversing the 30-year tide of rising income inequality; a set of income supports and tax incentives for the working poor and middle class; and public investment in infrastructure and alternative energy.

For Samuelson, this agenda is a pander package. In fact, Obama's economic plan coherently reflects his core priorities -- to restore "balance" and "fairness" to the U.S. economy by redistributing income toward the working poor, redistributing risk that has been shifted onto individuals back toward the collective, and investing in the public good through infrastructure and energy projects. The money would come from troop withdrawal in Iraq, and by rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.

Because he does not respect this policy agenda, Samuelson misrepresents Obama's metapolitics -- his argument that we need to fix the policymaking process before we can craft effective policy. As Obama put it on Feb. 19 in Houston, "the problem that we face in America today is not the lack of good ideas. It's that Washington has become a place where good ideas go to die." He has said repeatedly that his policy prescriptions are broadly similar to Hillary's. But he has argued repeatedly and in depth that he is better equipped than Hillary to build a mandate to get the essentials passed -- and to transform the policymaking process as he goes.

According to Samuelson, this appeal is based too much on a kind of myth of personality:

The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative -- to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery -- can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy.

True enough so far. The intoxicating prospect of electing a black president is an important 'subtext' of an apparently broad and deep wish in the electorate to 'change our politics.' It's also true that to a large degree Obama is his argument. His refusal to accept lobbying money, his pledge to remain truthful, his rhetorical success in touching chords throughout the electorate (see reaction to his speech), his electoral success to date, his record of moving bipartisan legislation -- all are deployed to demonstrate the possibility of transcending paralyzing partisanship without mincing on a progressive agenda.

Obama's apparent ability to win broad support while being completely explicit about a policy agenda that Samuelson regards as tired-left lends credibility to his pitch that he can change our politics by building a "working majority." The originality lies not in the individual policy prescriptions, but in the attempt to recast that package as the center in American politics. In that way, Obama is indeed bidding to be the left's Reagan -- "transformative" in taking the electorate where he wants to go.

Related posts:
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

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