Thursday, January 17, 2008

Interpreting Obama

Ezra Klein has, I think, a very smart interpretation of the whole Obama/Reagan kerfluffle. But it also points to the wider problem with Obama's approach to politics.

But what Obama is doing is what Norquist most wants to avoid: He's homogenizing Reagan's political legacy. He's reconstructing it as accountability in government rather than smallness of government, clarity of purpose rather than conservatism of purpose, dynamism and entrepreneurship rather than backlash and upward redistribution. So what's going on here is twofold.

As I said, this is a very smart interpretation. But I previously mentioned that Obama is a Rorschach test. His message is so lofty that it is hard to know if this interpretation is really what Obama means or it is simply what Ezra Klein wants him to mean.

The Obama vs. Clinton dynamic is coming down to a question of inspirational/transformational vs. managerial/incremental. Some people want a leader who will inspire them and help them believe that things can be better. While other people want a leader who proves it by actually doing it. Maybe I'm getting older, but I'm falling more towards the managerial side of the equation.

Here's why: a managerial approach is easier to visualize where it will lead. It is easier to see what will come of it. It is easier to see what kind of policies might arise. But an inspirational approach is very flexible when it comes to actual on-the-ground action. Grand rhetoric about bridging divides is all well and good, until that bridge ends up being built on compromises that border on selling out.

How do we know what kind of deals Obama will make to bridge the divide? We don't, because he has given us very few clues. At least with Hillary I think we have a better sense of what she might actually try to accomplish (even if I have my doubts about her strength to see it through.) The ironic thing here is that Bill Clinton, circa 1992, was the inspirational candidate.

I think this is why so many were disturbed by Obama's Reagan comment. It was a big clue, at a time when he has provided so few, as to what might be his model for leadership and policy making. I don't think Obama was endorsing Reaganism. But Obama's campaigning at 30,000 feet has left a lot of people with reason to doubt. And no amount of, "Of course he didn't endorse Reaganism you silly gits", will persuade them otherwise.

Having said all that, I am still divided on which of the two I would prefer as President. If I ask myself who, upon waking up on the morning after Super Tuesday, I would be most pleased to hear had sewn up the nomination, I think I'd have to come down on the side of Obama because there are lots of other reasons to weight the scales in his favor. I just don't find his inspirational/transformational persona persuasive (its actually a bit of a turnoff).

Damn I wish Howard Dean or Al Gore were running.


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