My pre-election column on Obama

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.


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