Barack Obama for President

It won't come to readers as a particular surprise that Barack Obama is my candidate for 2008, but at Mike's invitation, I'll lay out the reasons why. After all, as I've acknowledged, a lot of the good press Obama receives, … Read More

By / January 4, 2008

It won't come to readers as a particular surprise that Barack Obama is my candidate for 2008, but at Mike's invitation, I'll lay out the reasons why. After all, as I've acknowledged, a lot of the good press Obama receives, fueled by and fueling the rationale the Obama campaign puts out for itself, trades in uplifting, but seemingly insubstantial qualities. "Stand up for change" sounds great. What does it mean?

In fact, underneath the rhetorical flourishes — and by the way, when was the last time a Democratic crowd was moved to spontaneously break into "USA! USA!" cheers? — there is a great deal of substance, which represents concrete and promising change from both orthodox liberal and orthodox conservative approaches to foreign and domestic policy. This fact is obscured by the media's focus on judging candidates' positions, especially on domestic issues, exclusively in terms of campaign pledges and proposals, when in reality, very few if any policy or position commitments can be translated from the campaign to governing in unchanged form. A far better proxy for judging where a candidate stands is looking to his or her advisors — these are the people who are going to craft policy if the candidate wins, and their predilections are a lot more salient an indicator than campaign posturing. On this score, Obama shines.

His lead economic advisor is Austan Goolsbee, a behavioral economist from the University of Chicago, who is at the forefront of a movement in economics and public policy away from traditional welfare state liberalism, and towards market-oriented policies that expand the scope of personal choice, while at the same time being structured so as to create rational incentives for individuals to address long-term and systemic concerns like low-income financial insecurity, disparate access to education, etc.

Call it left-libertarianism if it needs a name. This is the root ideological difference between Obama and Clinton that leads to the quarrel they're having over whether or not to include mandatory subscription in their health care proposals. Both of them are sensitive to the problem of having 45 million or so citizens without health care; Obama is also sensitive to the need to preserve personal freedom, not to mention the futility of proposing orthodox liberal welfare policies that have a decades long track record of failing to deliver results, and of being repudiated at the ballot box.

Similarly, here is George Will's gloss of Goolsbee's position on free trade:

"Globalization" means free trade and various deregulations that supposedly put downward pressure on American wages because of imports from low-wage countries. Goolsbee, however, says globalization is responsible for "a small fraction" of today's income disparities. He says that "60 to 70 percent of the economy faces virtually no international competition." America's 18.5 million government employees have little to fear from free trade; so do auto mechanics, dentists and many others.

Free trade: a good thing at home and abroad. Likewise, I would assume, with the free movement of labor. Compare that to John Edwards presenting himself as the love-child of Huey Long and Pat Buchanan, recoiling in horror from a free-trade agreement with Peru, a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica if there ever was one. Let's not even mention the nativist lunacy sweeping through the GOP.

Similarly, in foreign affairs, Obama stands for something new and different from all the other candidates, along with his top foreign policy advisor, Samantha Power, about whom it's difficult to say enough good things. Alone among all the candidates, Obama grasps the dangerous uselessness of the hawk/dove dichotomy as an analytic tool. Those trapped on one side of that conceptual framework see a disposition to be belligerent as a token of "seriousness" about foreign policy and a disinclination to make war as an indication of foolish naivete and idealism; those trapped (admittedly a much smaller and less influential cadre) on the other side simply will not engage with cogent cases for the utility and occasional moral necessity of military interventions under certain circumstances, as in the Balkans, Rwanda, and today Darfur. Obama's rightness on both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, and his attention to Darfur, place him in a league of his own among all the candidates on foreign policy questions.

"Stand up for change"? Sounds good to me.


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