Wayne O’Leary

The 2 Obamas

Jack Nicholson, in a cinematic sequel to the moody, serpentine movie classic Chinatown, presented us with The Two Jakes. Democrats, in the equally convoluted general-election sequel to this season’s political primaries, are discovering they have been given two Obamas. Will the real nominee please stand up?

Barack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nod because, better than anyone else in the race, he personified hope, change, and a new approach to politics. No more triangulation. No more phony pandering. No more Washington business as usual. That was the implied message, and it worked. Now, the Illinois senator, who has been optimistically billed as a new FDR or JFK, must follow through; he has to show that, contrary to his critics, it was not all empty rhetoric. To date, the jury remains out.

There are good signs and bad ones. Obama could turn out to be another Bill Clinton, who ran as a populist and governed, especially after 1994, as a conservative-leaning centrist. But Obama could just as easily become another Franklin Roosevelt, who ran a barely progressive campaign in 1932—he advocated, among other things, a balanced budget—and governed as a transformational liberal reformist. You never can tell about center-left politicians. It’s worth remembering that Walter Lippmann, the leading pundit of his day, characterized the pre-New Deal FDR as a “pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would like very much to be president.” The same has been said about Obama.

To a certain extent, Obama’s studied vagueness on a range of issues may be tactical. Candidates who spell out their intentions in accommodating detail generally lose. Ask any number of failed laundry-list aspirants to the White House. Sadly, the presentation of detailed programs and proposals, while admirable and politically honest, merely provides the other side with fat targets of convenience.

Still, candidates have to say something, and the long road to the nomination has certainly taught us things about Obama at the margins and delivered hints as to the direction of his potential presidency. The Obama we know most about is the foreign-policy Obama. Foreign affairs, specifically the war in Iraq, was the original rationale for his candidacy. Given that, a serious effort to disengage from the occupation of Mesopotamia and transfer military efforts to the broader war on terrorism will undoubtedly be forthcoming.

Whether the festering Palestinian question will be effectively addressed (beyond the recent pledge of allegiance to Israel) and what will happen with regard to China and Iran are unknowns. One thing is certain, however: the symbolism represented by Obama’s biography and persona will resonate throughout the Third World; it can only redound to America’s benefit. Foreigners, especially the non-white populations of the underdeveloped countries, are nearly as invested in Obama as is liberal America.

It seems clear that an era in United States foreign policy is coming to a close; the years of belligerence, aggression, and go-it-alone are ending. A more nuanced and cooperative approach to the world, incorporating so-called soft power, is at hand. An Obama administration will attempt to implement something on the order of FDR’s good-neighbor policies, presenting a face to outsiders at variance with the Bush-McCain image of empire-building and interventionist glory- seeking. Perhaps this will disarm global terrorism, perhaps not. At a minimum, it will replace the Ugly American visage even moderate and favorably disposed countries have perceived for nearly a decade. The eloquence and broad vision that are reminiscent of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy at their best will reinforce this Obama effect; the speeches he will make may, to paraphrase his primary opposition, be only words, but words can make all the difference.

Obama’s external policies should, in short, lead to the welcome revival of a long, honored liberal tradition with the potential to transform international relations. But what of Obama at home? Here, predictions are harder to make, and the future path is murkier. If there are two Obamas, one trending left and one hewing to the center, it is the domestic-policy area, especially as regards economics, that is most problematic from the standpoint of progressive populists.

On the plus side, the Democratic nominee-designate wants to enact some form of universal health care, aid victims of the home-mortgage fiasco, impose order on the chaotic financial markets, and provide additional stimulus to the faltering economy. Most encouraging is his determination to reverse the regressive tax policies of the Bush years by shifting the revenue burden away from the middle class and back to the wealthy, who have luxuriated in high-end tax cuts for a decade. This would be done by raising the top income-tax bracket, hiking the capital-gains levy, and removing the cap on Social Security taxes, thereby subjecting America’s affluent to meaningful payroll taxes for the first time and guaranteeing survival of the federal retirement system.

So far so good. But there are disquieting signs as well. Obama’s medical-care proposal rewards the health-insurance industry by preemptively taking the single-payer option off the table; it will have to be put back by popular demand and congressional action. His response to the simmering oil and gasoline crisis has been equally uninspired, amounting to little more than a rejection of short-term fixes like gas-tax holidays and offshore drilling. And he has abandoned promised plans to renegotiate NAFTA. The Democratic standard-bearer will have to do better than that. (Since this was penned, he has proposed $1,000 gasoline-rebate checks, paid for by a windfall-profits tax paid for by Big Oil.)

Most disheartening, the candidate of change has lately been revealed as somewhat backward-looking when it comes to his choice of economic advisors. Obama’s economic brains trust is stocked heavily with market-worshipping retreads from the Clinton administration and the Kerry campaign, as well as products of the center-right University of Chicago economics department, made famous by Milton Friedman and his academic disciples. Free traders, neoliberal globalizers, and centrist Robert Rubin acolytes are well represented. Some of the names (Jason Furman, Austan Goolsbee, Jeffrey Liebman, Michael Froman) are not reassuring, but at least two (Keynesians James Galbraith and Jared Bernstein) hold out promise.

So there are two Obamas: the idealist on the world stage capable of making Americans proud again and the pragmatist on the home front with the disturbingly split political personality. Progressives have to hope that, like clinical possessors of multiple personalities, Obama has a dominant side, the liberal one.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, Sept. 15, 2008

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