My pre-election column on Obama

by on January 3, 2011 at 3:17 am in Political Science | Permalink

This was published in Spanish, in a magazine called Capital, right before the Presidential election.  I will put the English draft under the fold...

Guessing the “true economic views” of Barack Obama has become a small industry in the United States and also around the world.  I’ve met people who are convinced that he is a radical left-winger and that his parents were 1960s communists.  I’ve met others who claim Obama absorbed lots of free market economics at the University of Chicago, during his time as a Law Professor there.  In this view he is a conservative stealth candidate who will surprise many of his left-wing supporters.

Obama’s voting record in the Senate is relatively but not radically left-wing.  But since he’s been planning on the Presidency for years, that recent experience does not settle the question.

My view of Obama’s economics is a simple and straightforward one and it is consistent with his public pronouncements.  I view him as an economic pragmatist who is willing to borrow good ideas from many sources.  He stands further to the left than do most Americans (myself included) but he has lined up the very best economic talent to advise him.

Since politicians are so often professional liars, why should we take Obama’s proclaimed pragmatism seriously?

If you read’s Obama first memoir, which he wrote before he was a public figure, issues of race and identity dominate.  He is acutely aware of being a mixed-race person in a community of largely white American leaders.  Most of all, I think Obama wants to do a good job as President and he wants to be seen as having done a good job.  That would pave the way for improved race relations and also, although Obama would not use these words, it would bring higher status for African-Americans.  When it comes to his subconscious emotions, I see Obama as more attached to the notion of excelling than to any particular view of economic policy.

Keep in mind that Obama was raised by a white mother (the black father was absent) and he “decided to be black,” and to marry a black woman and attend a black church, only later in his life.  Oddly, his hopes for improved race relations are the hopes that would be held by a utopian white liberal rather than the vision held by most African-Americans.  That is one reason why African-Americans were initially so slow to support him and why so many educated white elites feel so at home with him.

Obama is also famously detached and it seems he never loses his cool.  He does not drink up ideology like a drug but instead is focused on creating his own personal success.  That implies a very strong ego but also again a economic and also a foreign policy pragmatism, in the good sense.  If Obama is elected, I expect the major economic storyline to be Obama pushing policies in the national interest (as he perceives it) and Congress pushing back with earmarked expenditures and special privileges for interest groups.

There is plenty of talk about Obama being half-black but perhaps the more important fact is that Obama is from Hawaii.  Hawaiians barely think of themselves as North Americans and they do live many miles from the continent.  The Hawaiian background is part of where Obama’s cosmopolitanism – which is strong and sincere – comes from. 

My description may sound like a very favorable portrait of Obama on economics but he will likely encounter serious problems if he wins the election.  The important American Presidents are those like Reagan who “know a few big things” and push them unceasingly, without much regard for the pragmatic or even the reasonable.  Obama is not used to connecting with mainstream America.  Congress will test him and push him around.  There’s a very small chance that he makes big mistakes, but at this point the best prediction is that he will be ineffective in tackling many of America’s biggest problems.

End of column, a few notes: There was no room for citations (my apologies!), it was written for a non-American audience, and I will look for my McCain draft as well.

dearieme January 3, 2011 at 2:50 am

"I view him as an economic pragmatist who is willing to borrow good ideas from many sources." How would he know whether they were good?

Colin January 3, 2011 at 4:46 am

fiscal stimulus made significantly of tax-cuts…

What tax cuts? I noticed lots of tax *credits*, particularly for various causes championed by politicians such as high speed rail and green energy, but haven't found any marginal tax rate cuts that were part of the stimulus. Tax credits are simply garbage that pollutes the tax code and distorts economic decision making.

forestem January 3, 2011 at 5:49 am

I'm having a lousy morning here, but seeing the phrase "dyed in the wool" become "died in the womb" gives me hope I can make it through.

liberty January 3, 2011 at 6:16 am

There is a fair bit of insight in there, unfortunately it remained a bit of a horoscope (in hindsight fitting any outcome) because the only actual thing you said about what his economic policies would LOOK LIKE is "Obama pushing policies in the national interest (as he perceives it) " – which could be anything (except perhaps special interest spending, which you contrasted it with). Marxists think their economic policies are in the national interest, Reagan thought his economic policies were in the national interest, so did Thatcher, FDR, Carter, Kennedy, Ford and probably even Nixon.

mulp January 3, 2011 at 6:42 am

Reagan was a pragmatist who excelled at creating scapegoats to blame for all the problems of the US and that he would drive from society.

Reagan hiked taxes much more than he cut taxes, he increased Federal spending more than he cut spending, he increased wasteful spending more than he cut wasteful spending (what possible value has accrued other than creating government funded jobs in advanced military technology with no military value from the stealth bombers, the missile defense, et al), and Reagan took Social Security out of the crisis state and protected it for realistically 50 years minimum.

And of all the points he ran on, he delivered nothing. The tax policies changes have not benefited the middle class and working poor families who have seen their welfare become static or fall. The Ozzie and Harriet family is even further from reality since 1980 with continued breakdown in the "traditional family". By the definition conservative Republicans use, we are "less safe" today than we were before 1980. He himself reversed his no compromise tough on defense stance and instead became an advocate of arms reduction.

But as this is about Obama, Obama has drawn on Reagan and been the Reagan pragmatist, adopting all conservative Republican solutions: health reform based on the Republican proposals that Mitt Romney got implemented in Mass. to burnish his presidential credentials. Tax cuts to stimulate the economy. Milton Friedman's tax credits to help the "poor" instead of welfare programs. Tax credits and loan guarantees to direct energy policy. Nixon's EPA and regulation. The Republican's cap and trade pollution controls expanded to greenhouse gases.

So, just like Reagan, Obama has crossed over and compromised with the other side, but Republicans are oddly non-pragmatic while liberals and Democrats are always looking for any progress on issues. Ted Kennedy is the best example of the liberal who learned slowly but learned well to pick your fights and make progress with compromise with conservatives when ever possible.

Obama is more like Pat Moynihan than anyone else, a man who was attacked from the right and left, except Moynihan wasn't in a highly visible power position. In my view, Obama's position in power is what makes him the subject of conservative Republican attack. Obama could be proposing Ryan's policies and he would be attacked as a big government leftist by conservatives because conservatives are driven most by power, not policies. (Fox is the one who weekly singles out a Power Player of the Week.)

Andrew January 3, 2011 at 8:02 am

"I only read the first sentence"

8 words.

dirk January 3, 2011 at 9:55 am

Here's where the prediction went most wrong: "he has lined up the very best economic talent to advise him."

Six Ounces January 3, 2011 at 10:24 am

Happy New Year all.

I think King Taco has it mostly correct. We have to separate the manufactured public image from the man himself, and the influence of external factors both on him and his policies.

President Obama is a simulacrum or, as King Taco described, a "Magic Mirror."

Barack Obama is what he has chosen to be:

- Half black, he chose to be ALL black with just enough white in him to avoid Jesse Jackson Syndrome.
- He chose to build his political roots in Chicago, where he could wrap up the black vote and the party machine.
- In his own words, he sought out mentors and educators on the far-left.
- His pragmatism extends ONLY as far as necessary to maintain power. He knows that if his real views were broadcast, he'd never be elected to anything.
- He's either a whimpish leader or he overplayed collegiality with Reid and Pelosi. It was THEIR healh care bill, and he never really fought for it. In fact, it's a minor miracle it passed – throug well-positioned bribes. Then again, he may have chosen to stand clear of it. It is enough of his plan to take credit, but not enough of his bill so he can blame all defects on not getting what he wanted.
-His intellect is vastly overstated. He knows absolutely nothing about economics, military strategy, diplomacy, finance, energy, or management. His policies are an incoherent mess.
-His temperament is erratic and misplaced. Robert Gibbs said Obama was "outraged" over North Korea's artillery attacks. I really doubt he expressed any emotion on the matter. He certainly didn't respond like someone "outraged.". He is genuinely perturbed about media and political attacks on him and his policies. His body language is filled with "tells." He stutters every time he's lying.

So what we have is an inexperienced leader of slightly above average intellect with little exposure to the most important issues we face.

He's an articulate presenter of prepared speeches, not surprising for someone who was a non-tenured university lecturer for more than 10 years. He can fire up a friendly audience with red meat, but he can't speak extemporaneously to a mixed audience to questions for which he is unprepared – because his command of the subjects is as shallow as a drop of oil in a bathtub.

He relies on "experts" to craft policies, speeches, and build his persona. But these "experts" either come with significant baggage or really aren't the deep thinkers they're made out to be.

He's as guilty of political patronage as any politician, granting appointments to every left-wing nutcase from across the country.

His policies have been so out of touch, he failed or barely succeeded to pass every piece of legislation despite holding commanding majorites in both chambers of Congress. It really shouldn't have been that hard. His failures ALL came from Democrat defection and his successes ALL came from two or three Republicans breaking ranks to fill the Democrat gap.

No president ever squandered so much goodwill and political advantage. That's why he took a serious drubbing in November.

We'll see what he's made of now.

Liberal Roman January 3, 2011 at 11:24 am

"He can fire up a friendly audience with red meat, but he can't speak extemporaneously to a mixed audience to questions for which he is unprepared – because his command of the subjects is as shallow as a drop of oil in a bathtub."

Umm..find and watch his Q&A session with Congressional Republicans in early 2010.

If anything on health care, his command of the subject was too meticulous and he got bogged down explaining the gritty details of the legislation when no one really cared about that.

Six Ounces January 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm

@Red Meat Eater Roman

Approval ratings are not the proper metric for what I'm describing. I'm talking about leadership effectiveness, not populariy.

I don't put any credence in "approval" ratings. Bush's ratings were low because almost all Democrats considered him too conservative, Republicans considered him not conservative enough, and independents were dissatisfied with the economy and two long wars. That metric doesn't speak to my point at all.

I was talking about the significant difficulty getting legislation passed with:

-A severe crisis
-The strong hopes and support of the electorate
-Control over the House
-Filibuster-proof control over the Senate
-A cooperative bureaucracy including the Fed, FDIC, GSEs, etc.
-Cooperative state houses

Bush easily achieved ALL his policy goals post-9/11 with the exception of Social Security reform. Even with considerable headwinds, he got continued funding for Iraq, support for The Surge, and TARP.

Indeed, Republicans squandered many years of power since 2000. Obama surpassed that "accomplishment" in two years and Pelosi in four. Quite a feat!

Every part of the health care bill was pulled out of the Democrat's filing cabinet, dusted off, and retyped. Few ideas were new. We've seen all this before the last time they held power. They introduced these bills and amendments before empty chambers when Republicans were in power.

Similarly, little in the financial system reform bill was new. It had LITTLE to do with the financial crisis. Dodd has been pushing the credit card bill since at least 2003. Elizabeth Warren was pushing some of these rules long ago. They weren't addressing present problems and wouldn't have stopped the financial crisis.

FYI, it's the "gritty details" that Americans were and ARE concerned about in the health care bill. I read it in its entirety. I don't give you, Obama or most Democrats credit for doing the same.

His lengthy list of monumental accomplishments were dragged across the finish line with bribes, not leadership or courage. If he were an effective leader selling us things people wanted, they would have soared through.

Obama has no "command" of any subject, with the possible exception of law. He knows ZERO about health care economics, insurance, and delivery systems. He recites prepared talking points.

You seem to have forgotten the "history" that happened two months ago.

You don't need to say any more. You need to think some more.

josh January 4, 2011 at 5:06 am

Tyler clearly read Sailer's book, though he never mentioned that in his "What I'm bragging about reading" post.

Kent Guida January 4, 2011 at 8:26 am

I'm curious about Tyler's decision to publish this piece again, since it doesn't, to me anyway, show any great insight into Obama's character before the election. On the contrary, it's rather wide of the mark. The first time Tyler posted this, in 2009, I believe, I thought it was an act of courage, a public demonstration of his own fallibility. But why do it twice?

Kent Guida

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