Obama insecurity

by on August 17, 2008 at 5:43 am in Political Science | Permalink

Obama has many good qualities but this does not prevent the circulation of massive amounts of "Obama insecurity," as evidenced by some of the comments on a recent post.  (It’s not about disagreeing; note how the tone changes.)  For some people no comment on Obama, other than the purely laudatory, is anything other than a hackish right-wing attempt to forge an alliance of lies with Karl Rove and his ilk.  But an election need not be framed as a war where all remarks must be strategically proper and in line with the objective of electing a preferred candidate; a blog is a discourse first and foremost.

The mood on Obama reminds me of the response of some MR commentators to Eric Lyon on Radiohead.

I cannot imagine how devastated and hopeless the Democratic left would feel if Obama loses.  That response would be a big mistake but in part it explains "Obama insecurity."  The left is uneasy that so many of their hopes are pinned on this man and as Paul Krugman points out he is somewhat unknown.  There is a secondary fear that Obama is in fact committed to the notion of America as a center-right country or at least is unwilling to challenge that idea. 

"Obama insecurity" hurts his electoral chances and hurts the intellectual future of the left as a corrective force in American politics.  There’s not a convincing or credible path toward painting his enemies as immoral, even if that is what you believe.  Some campaign lies are painting Obama as weak, inexperienced, and non-American or even anti-American.  Responding with a dose of "Obama insecurity" only plays into the hands of those who would turn this into a race of emotions and innuendo. 

J.Lo August 17, 2008 at 6:24 am

Well put. Both Obama and his supporters would do well to respond to criticism in two ways:

1. For legitimate criticism: “That’s interesting. I’ll need to consider that more carefully.”

2. For illegitimate criticism: Laugh it off, shrug, and say “politics produces some funny moments.”

To your point, taking umbrage merely legitimizes the criticism and cedes control of the argument to the person making it. Better to defuse it.

Peter August 17, 2008 at 8:01 am

“McCain actually has much better press relations than Obama as far as I can tell, and will ]g]et a lot of leeway.”

What world are you living in? Obama could rape a child right in front of the crying parents and still get good press.

odograph August 17, 2008 at 8:20 am

BTW, McCain in 2000 would have been awesome … too bad he was Swift Boated.

Eight years later, when it’s not time for a McCain, and it’s really sad that he plays games of mild rebuke with the Swift Boaters in his own camp.

chug August 17, 2008 at 8:32 am

For the detached, political-junkie-observer, this has the potential to be one of the most interesting and fun elections in a long time.

odograph August 17, 2008 at 9:11 am

“Um, but surely far better than the choice of W versus John Kerry?”

That’s interesting. When it closed to McCain, Obama, and Clinton, I felt that they all offered at least the possibility of moderate government. I guess the race for the shallow end in this campaign has put me off.

But to answer your question, far better.

Tyler Cowen August 17, 2008 at 9:32 am

Tom G., I very much did link to those people I am discussing and you will find the same in many places around the blogosphere. If I didn’t cite them it is because of the obviousness; try Mark Thoma’s comments section, for instance, noting that the intellectual level of Mark’s blog is high so it cannot be claimed that I am choosing from the bottom of the barrel; quite the contrary. Note also that a) the emotional responses of the commentators did not in general cite the point of “representativeness,” and b) if a blog post on a different topic had not sufficiently explained the representativeness issue it certainly would have not received a comparable emotional reaction. The general point is that we react more emotionally when we see people being discussed than we we see issues being discussed and that is what I am calling out.

Hei Lun Chan August 17, 2008 at 10:23 am

It would probably happen much the same way with any other Democrat.

But it’s not true about Hillary. Clinton’s supporters didn’t reflexively accuse opponents of sexism and bad faith any time anyone (even other Democrats) said anything bad about her. Maybe it’s because the Clintons have been criticized so much over the last decade and a half that their supporters are used to it. Perhaps Hillary is the exception and this would have happened with any other Democrat.

But it is generally true that Obama supporters have a fit any time their candidate gets criticized, even the very legitimate criticisms like his flip-flop on FISA and that he’s going to raise taxes on the rich.

eddie August 17, 2008 at 10:31 am

[..] plays into the hands of those who would turn this into a race of emotions and innuendo.

What else has an election ever been? By what possible mechanism could an election be anything else?

You’re confusing “election” with “pseudo-intellectual discourse among people who are politically aware and who believe that their words and actions will determine the outcome, but who don’t actually matter in the least, because they aren’t several million undecided voters living in swing states.” The latter is something that could transcend emotions and innuendo. But it probably won’t, either. Which is fine, because it still doesn’t matter.

John S. August 17, 2008 at 10:54 am

I agree with Tyler. The tendency among some of Obama’s supporters to switch to CAPITAL LETTERS (or Bold Face) smacks of … something.

Sanjay August 17, 2008 at 11:20 am

Huh — I hadn’t seen that Lyon piece, and to be honest I don’t listen to a lot of pop nowadays and am pretty sure I wouldn’t know Radiohead if I heard them. But what I can say to the comment that Radiohead tunes are “uninteresting” as tat the one thing I do know about Radiohead, is that as far as I can tell, Brad Mehldau really likes working with their tunes.

And that is game, set, match, Mr. Lyon!

Affe August 17, 2008 at 11:44 am

Time to conflate two recent memes: how about a post in which Tyler invites people to guess which candidtate he believes is “evil”.

thehova August 17, 2008 at 12:13 pm

yes, reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I get the same sense.

Every slightly negative add Sullivan connects to the Rove machine.

Steven August 17, 2008 at 12:22 pm

A fair reading of the graph you published would leave many, perhaps most, casual readers with the false impression that Obama’s proposal leaves middle income people with less money. Edward Tufte would not approve of a graph that seemed to say one thing when it actually said the opposite, nor do I think it’s intellectually honest. Being literally correct while misleading readers is no defense, IMHO

I think this is an excellent example of what Tyler is talking about when he says that for “some people no comment on Obama, other than the purely laudatory, is anything other than a hackish right-wing attempt to forge an alliance of lies with Karl Rove and his ilk.” Even a “literally correct” statement about marginal tax rates–on a blog titled “Marginal Revolution” no less–can be attacked because it might mislead some readers. Remarkably enough, most casual readers of an economics blog probably understand the concept of margins, and why they are important, even if Obama’s proposals would ultimately raise the incomes of lower-income households.

Steven August 17, 2008 at 12:51 pm


From the original post (and granted I don’t know when this addendum was added): “Addendum: I am not saying that Obama is ‘raising taxes on the poor.’ It is about marginal rates and yes marginal rates do matter for incentives.”

And you interpret this post as trying to leave the impression that “Obama’s proposal leaves middle income people with less money.” That is absurd.

I seriously doubt that any significant portion of the readership here was mislead in any way.

a student of economics August 17, 2008 at 12:58 pm

FWIW, Tyler was not even “literally correct” when he claimed those were Obama’s “marginal tax rates”.

In fact, there is a formal distinction between “effective marginal rates” which include phase outs, and “marginal rates” which do not.

Perhaps “some” would defend him by saying “Hey, give Tyler a break. There does exist an interpretation under which he was correct.”

But that is neither the lay person’s interpretation (which would undoubtedly see the graph as saying Obama proposes higher taxes) nor the sophisticate’s interpretation, which distinguishes “effective” marginal rates.

I’m not sympathetic to the carefully calibrated level of sophistication needed to justify his claim.

Billare August 17, 2008 at 2:37 pm

It’s hilarious to see the liberal-left aching to fall over their metaphorical swords for Obama, for example the recent attack ads by McCain being outrageously linked to some “Southern Strategy” hinting at some nefarious connection between Obama, miscegenation, and blondes. Uh, yeah. It seems to me that many of them desperately long for that bygone era of the ’60s, somehow revolutionary (yet in fact bourgeois fashionable), brought about the reincarnation of the King of Camelot himself.

Jim Hu August 17, 2008 at 3:27 pm

I think the general phenomenon of Obama defensiveness is real and has the negative effects on Obama’s standing with independents that Tyler suggests… but I’m not seeing it in the linked post. Searching that thread for “rove” only hits “improve”.

sidereal: Taft?!

Yancey Ward August 17, 2008 at 8:24 pm


No, you are wrong in this case. Even Republicans are unenthusiastic about McCain. I have seen almost no passionate McCain supporters anywhere- in the media, in the blogosphere, or in my everyday life. This is a disadvantage of a kind for McCain, but not one that lends itself to very public reactions on the part of those emotionally over-invested in the candidate, though, in most elections, you would be correct. It was certainly true in 2000 and 2004 that Bush supporters could overreact to criticisms, but even then, I had never seen what I see in the case of Obama supporters.

DPirate August 18, 2008 at 2:13 am

Yancey Ward,

You may be right that there aren’t as many, but I’ve personally come across more people who hold, for instance, that McCain is definitively patriotic simply for having been captured in Vietnam, or who associate him with morality, I assume purely because of the republican (read christian family values) tag, and who are apparently ready to resort to violence before discussion in defending their views, than I have seen overzealous Obama supporters.

Maybe I just dont notice it in the democrats, or I do not visit the places these Obamaniacs express themselves. I am certainly not seeing it in the comments thread in question. Happily, there aren’t many, if any, allusions to violence going on here at MR, but my threat-o-meter points to republican these days just as much as it always did, lol.

Seems that it should be telling, in such a subjective sort of impression, what qualifies as over-the-top emotional diatribe to a person.

odograph August 18, 2008 at 9:51 am

It’s kind of perverse when people take the low ground, and then complain about being called on it.

Mankiw certainly did not do an Economist or National Geographic grade graphic on tax strategies for the US. He certainly did not include historic context nor relate taxation to debt and deficit.

It’s the low road, neglecting all that context, to simply claim that expired cuts are “higher effective marginal taxes”

But … let’s not all of us talk about appropriate taxation in as we approach a $10T national debt … let’s complain about the emotion of Obama supporters …

odograph August 18, 2008 at 11:26 am

I’d ask you to give me an intelligent answer about what the baseline is, or should be.

There is this sort of imbecilic argument out there, that it is all about effective increases (bad) and effective decreases (good) … devoid of any fiscal responsibility.

Is that the argument you would like to frame, Yancey?

Tom August 18, 2008 at 11:47 am

“Swift-boating? In a slightly earlier era, it was called “borking”. Both sides do it, and both sides claim that only the other does it.”

Two different things. The Swiftboaters won the fact war. Kerry has had years to refute their charges, but chooses not to (most likely not able to.)

Hopefully Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 1:30 pm

In response to d.cous. Well, Obama does have something else to run on besides his personality. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and his opponent graduated near the bottom of his class with a bachelors from the Naval Academy. And Obama seems to have fiscally run the most disciplined presidential campaign, and technologically and logistically the most innovative one. So there’s evidence that he’s both the smartest candidate (at things relevant to a President’s job) and at the present, is the candidate with the best executive skills.

Unfortunately, in American in 2008, it may not be an advantage to run as having empirically demonstrated being one of the smartest people in the country.

odograph August 18, 2008 at 2:03 pm

Tom, I doubt 1 in 20 American voters could reduce the original Swift Boat campaign to a set of facts. I mean, reviewing the Wikipedia page, it’s hard for me to see facts that were both important and long-lived.

It was a cunning social hack, creating a feel with people who didn’t in fact have the facts.

odograph August 18, 2008 at 2:08 pm

Shorter Yancy: Odograph wants to raise our taxes!

Yancey Ward August 18, 2008 at 2:26 pm


If you think the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire then, yes, you want to raise taxes. Just saying that does not imply anything as to whether that desire is “good” or “bad”.

odograph August 18, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Shorter: Yancey is playing to the sub-prime borrower in us all. “Lower your payments!”

Yancey Ward August 18, 2008 at 3:07 pm


I am not trying to make it about you, but I respect clear language from people. When you complained that “[i]t’s the low road, neglecting all that context, to simply claim that expired cuts are “higher effective marginal taxes”, it is necessary, for clarity, to point out that expired cuts are higher taxes- this is not misleading under any context, but is a simple statement of fact. If you want context- so supply it yourself, but don’t start from the premise that a different context changes the meaning of the phrases “higher/lower taxes”. Context only provides a basis for judging the prudence of the action.

Mankiw may have a very good reason for not caring about the deficits and the like, but based on your comment, it appears that he was factually correct.

This is the way your comment should have been worded:

Mankiw certainly did not do an Economist or National Geographic grade graphic on tax strategies for the US. He certainly did not include historic context nor relate taxation to debt and deficit.

Neglecting all that context, to simply point out that expired cuts are “higher effective marginal taxes” misses the bigger picture

G Green August 18, 2008 at 4:32 pm

It won’t be just the Democrats who will feel disappointed. It is the entire world. The world will lose its faith in the American people, to have had such a candidate and not have elected him. That would be bizarre and hard to understand. The world would be stunned and yes, America would be shunned. If McCain wins, there’s only one way that America can go: down, the path that Bush pointed it to.

Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Unfortunately, in American in 2008, it may not be an advantage to run as having empirically demonstrated being one of the smartest people in the country.

YES!!!! for philosopher kings!!!!!

Hopefully Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 11:08 pm

“Please don’t act indignant that people might be wary of him.”

Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more. Of course he’s only a magna. It’s the sumas you have to watch out for. ;)

AST August 18, 2008 at 11:56 pm

I’ve been thinking about postmodernism lately, and it occurs to me that this kind of thinking, believing nonsense with all one’s soul and being existentially wrapped up in political campaigns, might be products of the processes of deconstructionism and rebuilding reality in your mind as you would like it to be. In the PoMo world Truth is what you want it to be, but when it turns out not be in the real world, as happened in the 2000 and 2004 elections, it’s really, really jarring, infuriating and conducive to insecurity.

A toast to their insecurity!

M. Simon August 19, 2008 at 12:37 am

(And the NYT ran a series of long pieces where soldiers in his unit refuted the charges of the swiftboaters, but never mind)

So Kerry didn’t say that the troops in VietNam were rapists and murders of civilians on the order of their commanding officers? Who knew?

BTW it was the commies who chopped off the heads of village leaders.

There were 10 – 11 million ‘Nam Vets who didn’t like that. Especially since in the intervening years there has been no proof of the charge. However, we do know that the communists killed hundreds of thousands once they got into power and that somewhere between 1/2 million and a million took to the sea out of fear for their lives. About 1/2 lost their lives.

Christmas in Cambodia was proved as fact?

And folks on Kerries boat liked him. That’s nice. Now what about the rest of his unit who saw him in actioin? And did you know that the leaders of the Swiftboaters, O’Neil, was a Democrat?

M. Simon August 19, 2008 at 1:19 am

If we punish the rich they reduce or curtail their investing or move their money to more congenial locales. Is that what Democrats want to do?

Obama did (at least at one time) he said that even if increasing tax rates reduce government income it was the fair thing to do.

Who gets hurt when the economy slows down? The rich? I don’t think so.

Roger L. Simon August 19, 2008 at 2:09 am

“Some campaign lies are painting Obama as weak, inexperienced, and non-American or even anti-American.”

Hmmm…. non-American or anti-American are of course baloney (lies), but inexperienced? Compared to his opponent, Obama is vastly inexperienced. No one could but an ideologue could dispute that. As for weak or strong under presidential pressure – who knows?

24AheadDotCom August 19, 2008 at 3:17 am

Many BHO supporters in comment threads are probably all the same person. See the comments at the WaPo for an example. Some might even be paid, if not by the campaign then by supporters. For instance, one pro-BHO comment said that the “coals are being stoked” and at least to me that sounds like something someone who’s working from Mumbai would write.

Some campaign lies are painting Obama as weak, inexperienced, and non-American or even anti-American.

Some of BHO’s statements and actions show him to be some degree of anti-American and un-American. For instance, these comments just from today.

Or, being proud of acting as (at the least) a useful idiot for a corrupt foreign country whose likely proxies organized marches inside our country designed to change our laws: peekURL.com/z9ljfou

Or, praising an extremist linked to a foreign government: peekURL.com/ztjus53

Or, accusing the government he works for of ‘terrorizing” people: peekURL.com/zgf7mjg

Don’t worry, there’s more.

jvon August 19, 2008 at 4:19 am

Wait a second. “Lies” are portraying him as inexperienced? A first-term senator who has spent most of that term running for a different office?

Those aren’t lies. And there’s plenty reason for him to be insecure.

Orion August 19, 2008 at 5:50 am

The Obamaphiles should start making appointments with their shrinks now, before they’re all booked up through October 2009.

d.cous. August 19, 2008 at 9:39 am

@ M. Simon:

I haven’t followed the guy’s career, but he would have to be Johnny Cochran-level famous as a lawyer in order to try any cases I’d heard of. I could be wrong, but I think a rather large number of lawyers work as legal consultants, but never go to trial. A quick glance at Obama’s Wikipedia page shows that he only worked at an actual law firm for a relatively short period in his career.

My point remains the same: Obama is probably exactly the person that the Left wants him to be. This does not make him unassailable (or remotely desirable) to the Right, much less to libertarians.

He is an Ivy-league educated, middle-aged lawyer turned senator turned presidential candidate. His new breed of transcendent and messianic politics is aptly timed at the end of the Bush years, but looks and sounds just like the same old politics to me, except that his people are on facebook. Call me crazy, but I feel like I’ve seen this all before, and I’m under 30.

David Ross August 19, 2008 at 10:21 am

Calling the Swift Boat vets liars won’t work. Some of their ads had mistakes; even those ads which were true (Magic Hat / Cambodia Xmas) were ignored by the electorate as petty, partisan hackwork (and, you’ll remember, rejected by McCain himself). But the ad about Kerry slandering soldiers even then serving in Vietnam was, uh, true. That’s the ad that got the base out in Nov ’04.

When I hear “swift boat” used as a verb, I translate it as “saying something true that hurts me”. I also decide that the person using it thinks in cliches, an unthinking automaton. I’m hardly the only one.

If you want to convince non-leftists to vote for your candidate; then admit that Kerry was a lousy candidate, promise not to malign the troops (who, if you should win, become YOUR troops) and move on. (Just like Republicans have no problem in admitting that Dole ’96 was a bad candidate.)

Superheater August 19, 2008 at 12:58 pm

“Obama insecurity” hurts his electoral chances and hurts the intellectual future
of the left as a corrective force in American politics.

And therein lies the smoking gun that TC is careening to the left. “A corrective force”?

The left is composed of two groups, the elite that willfully use its rhetoric to
institutionalize power and are inherently corrupt and a staggering amount of people
who cannot or will not recognize the underlying fallacy of a perfectible people.

The thing that frightens me about Obama is that behind that cool facade is the same
disordered narcissism of Shickelgruber pounding the podium. He may not be inclined to
incinerate parts of the population, but is an economic pyromaniac, Tyler’s
affection for Goolsbee aside.

David Ross August 19, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Or, you can do what Sanders does: keep insisting that John Kerry has always told the truth, all day and every day, for instance when he compared his fellow troops to the Great Khan.

Lemme know second half of November how that works out for you.

odograph August 19, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Kerry talks like a self-infatuated Senator, film at 11.

I asked for “important” facts. Facts about fuzzy things like slanders are definitely in the eye of the beholder, facts about river navigation, which might be honest error, or normal congressional self aggrandizement .. less so.

But here’s the thing David, partisans made those fuzzy things seem like what .. cowardice under fire?

David Ross August 19, 2008 at 4:11 pm

babboba, I hope you are honest, not a goalpost mover (“did I say facts? I meant *important* facts”) like odo.

George did test fighter planes. Any troops who got in the models he tested, and didn’t die in flaming wreckage, would have had cause to thank George. Quite a few field casualties are due to equipment malfunction. When you test, you don’t get shot at, but you get a lot more malfunction.

Also, and I repeat myself because this was where the SBV4T had its most traction: George didn’t then tour the country talking up about what a bunch of murderers the Nam fighters were. How come no-one seems to want to address THAT? Even Benedict Arnold was a hero “before he voted against it”. And Benedict Arnold failed. Kerry and pals succeeded – in handing over Indochina to Ho and the Khmer Rouge.

odograph August 19, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Check my timestamps David. I said “important” the first time, and quoted it the second time, to try to get the idea across.

first quote:

Tom, I doubt 1 in 20 American voters could reduce the original Swift Boat campaign to a set of facts. I mean, reviewing the Wikipedia page, it’s hard for me to see facts that were both important and long-lived.

second quote:

I asked for “important” facts. Facts about fuzzy things like slanders are definitely in the eye of the beholder, facts about river navigation, which might be honest error, or normal congressional self aggrandizement .. less so.

Cecil Turner August 19, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Yeah, the arguments over details generally obscure the real issue.

Kerry’s record suggests two of his Purple Hearts weren’t earned properly. The first, where he almost certainly injured himself with an M-79 grenade launcher; and the third, where he got the award from a self-inflicted grenade wound (after dumping it into a rice bin) and/or a bruise on his arm from bumping it into a bulkhead on his swiftboat. He then used the combination of the three PHs to leave with only a third of his tour complete. This is not a tangential detail, nor does the record support the claim that it was all somehow disproven (though each incident is the subject of some dispute).

But, as stated several times above, this is not what made the SwiftVets dislike John Kerry, nor was it what ultimately sank his candidacy. It did, however, focus attention on the main event: Kerry’s 1971 Senate Foreign Affairs Committee testimony . . . which was jarring and inconsistent with the “reporting for duty” theme.

Cecil Turner August 19, 2008 at 5:03 pm

Snopes gives exactly zero details on the awards (or the process).

The Navy review said a proper procedure was followed, and declined to speculate on the legitimacy of the awards. Absent Kerry’s military record, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

moptop August 19, 2008 at 5:26 pm

Oh, btw, there was never an cross story in Gulag Archipeligo, or anywhere else in Solzenitsin’s writing. It appears that the story first came into public domain through McCain, and it was mis-attributed by some right of center figures over the years.

And North Viet Nam was a French Colony and had a large catholic influence. But you guys go ahead and “swift boat” McCain back, if that makes you feel better. It just makes you look ridiculous. I know that you are incapable of reading the above and even checking it out if it is true. It comes from Talking Points Memo, except for the part, left out there of course, that it first came into the public domain through McCain.

babooba August 19, 2008 at 6:43 pm

Kerry handed Indochina to the Communists? Pretty good record of significant policy achievement, I’d say.

And the details of the purple hearts are *completely tangential* to anything to do with running for office. As I said, the Swiftboating tactic is this getting way way off into the weeds endlessly debating these details for which there will never be any real resolution or concensus. Each side will believe what it will believe. And at the end of the day, the mud has been successfully flung, and there is no possibility of successful rebuttal.

And guess what? You don’t have to talk about GWBs coke use, DUIs or spotty service record. Or the economy. Or the war. Or the suspension of the Constitution. You get to pick over whether a medal should have been awarded for getting shot in the butt. Awesome.

So, how do you counter that? Get a candidate with minimal history, who has taken pains to remove any sort of record. This is the endgame of this Rovian cr*p. Don’t like Obama? Appalled at his youth and lack of a track record? He’s a creation of the right’s politics of smear.

And Clinton? He didn’t have a movie, but he had his very own special prosecutor that turned an investigation into a land deal into an impeachment based on a stained dress.

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