Monday, June 23, 2008

Obama and Change: Unlocking the Puzzle

Dorothy Wickenden argues that Barack Obama's promise of change remains an enigma, at the New Yorker:
On October 7, 2002, in Cincinnati, Ohio, George W. Bush delivered the defining speech of his Presidency. In the face of “clear evidence of peril” from a regime harboring terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, he declared, “we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

Five days earlier, a forty-one-year-old Illinois state legislator had given a momentous speech of his own, although few recognized it as such at the time. “I don’t oppose all wars,” Barack Obama told a few hundred Chicago protesters, adding:

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush discovered a big idea for his Presidency. He would bring down a tyrant, crush terrorism, and impose democracy and peace on what his regent, Vice-President Dick Cheney, called “freedom-loving peoples of the region.” As the world now knows, that idea was based on faulty intelligence reports and executed with a fatal disregard of political reality in the Middle East and at home. By the time of the 2008 Presidential campaign, Bush’s approval rating had shrunk from sixty-seven per cent to thirty-seven per cent, the Republican Party was coming apart, and Obama’s 2002 speech had proved a precondition for an astounding climb to victory this month as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for President.

Still, sixteen months after announcing his candidacy, and after twenty-six Presidential debates and thousands of public-speaking engagements, Obama remains a puzzle to many voters. Almost as dedicated a policy wonk as Hillary Clinton and arguably more centrist in his economic beliefs, he offers plenty of specifics about what needs to be done. But his captivating eloquence and his slogan—“Change We Can Believe In”—have seemed to lift him dangerously high above the concrete. He has proved his steadiness of purpose without clearly defining his priorities. What, above all, does he intend to accomplish if he is elected President?

Obama is said to have been dissatisfied with the slogan. If so, he has a point. The “change” he advocates can be understood as a pragmatic correction to the radical policies and the ineptitude of the Bush brigade. His political departure is a kind of return. He has written two unusually revealing books—one describing how he came to be who he is, the other delineating how he proposes to reclaim the qualities that once made America so admired. He argues that the United States must relearn the fundamental lessons of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and its own long journey toward a more perfect union, and then apply them to the global upheavals of the twenty-first century.

In his books, Obama emerges not as the personification of cool projected onto him by his young adherents—or as the disdainful √©litist suggested by his offhand remark about a “bitter” working class—but as something of a square: someone who doesn’t have to strain to talk about “values,” God, and family. His eerily objective self-analysis is matched by his lawyerly ability to see things from the perspective of those on the other side. In January, after Obama uttered a few words of praise for Ronald Reagan in an interview with newspaper editors, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards rushed to condemn his apostasy. But he meant what he said. In 2006, in “The Audacity of Hope,” he had written, “Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism, and faith.”
Wickenden goes on to suggest that Obama's a model of consistency in his political views, not a "flip-flopper," like John McCain.

Actually, some have argued that it's Obama who flips on the issues (see "
Barack Obama, Serial Flip-Flopper"), although I do think Obama demonstrates an overall consistency in his ideological program.

While maybe he's not clarified it so much yet (and I think that's a questionable assumption), he's clearly to the far-left on most of the big issues of the day. It's a little extreme to call him an evil "
Obamanation," or the Beast of Revelations, but he's out there, that's for sure.