To state the obvious, we’ve arrived at a moment where the American people are so dissatisfied with our public policy, that they think they want nothing more than for things to be different. But it’s important to ask just how much change we’re really willing to entertain.
Senator Obama has shrewdly played on this theme from the very beginning of his campaign. The essence of his appeal is contained in the fact that he is different, and therefore will presumably act differently.
To this end, his competitive strategy is all about convincing us that a President McCain would be the same as a third-term President Bush. Obama stands a fair chance of winning the election, especially if he can keep the focus squarely on this idea.
Two months ago, when Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee, we generally thought of him as a doctrinaire left-wing liberal, bordering in fact on radical tendencies. This impression came from sustained positions that the man has taken all his life, and also from the people that he has chosen to associate with over the years.
But now we find that Obama has changed his mind on nearly everything we thought he stood for. The most recent flip-flops are in respect of drilling for oil in currently-forbidden areas, and on affirmative action. (He recently said that his own daughters, who were born to privilege, should not receive preference in college admission to white people who were born poor.)
And of course, at every single turn, the Protean One has told us that his position has not in fact changed, rather that he has been consistent all along.
What are we missing here? And far more to the point, what does Senator Obama actually intend to do as President of the United States?
The key to Obama’s personality may in fact be his long-overlooked twelve-year tenure as an instructor in constitutional law at the University of Chicago. It’s been suggested that he didn’t take the position all that seriously. He never published so much as a scrap of original scholarship, and he was running for political office the whole time anyway.
Instead, he appears to have engaged in a Solomonic exercise of getting young people to see that there is more than one side to every question. This in fact is a brilliant way to succeed in getting people to think you’re an awfully smart, cool, and detached fellow. Which in turn is a brilliant way to become greatly admired by the national news media, since those are the qualities they care about most.
In effect, Obama has run his Presidential campaign as a graduate seminar. There’s been a lot of talking around various issues, but no firm resolution one way or another, and always the exploration of new questions. When the period ends, you feel a lot smarter but no more inclined to take action.
And this explains why Obama can say without a touch of irony that all of his expressed positions on various important issues, from the conduct of the Iraq War, to affirmative action, to energy policy, have been consistent. He’s never taken a clear position on any issue, so he’s never had to change his mind.
There are currently two exceptions to this pattern that I can think of. To this day, Obama has allowed us to form the impression that he feels strongly on two important matters of economic policy. First, he believes in much higher taxes on income and capital, for the purpose of decreasing income inequality. Second, he believes in trade protectionism. (He says the latter is because trade destroys American jobs, which is wrong, so he’s either lying or deluded.)
I hope you can forgive me for expecting that both of these impressions will soon change. I think Obama will step up any day now to say that higher taxes are a desirable outcome that must be postponed due to current economic conditions, and that negotiations with our trading partners must continue with no preconceptions as to outcomes.
And then he’ll look us in the eye and say that this is nothing more or less than what he’s been saying all along.
That brings me back to the subject of change.
Senator Obama is betting that Americans want so badly to change the movie that they almost don’t care what we end up with as a result. This is a shrewd bet because it allows him to pursue a campaign that is almost entirely devoid of content. Meanwhile, John McCain struggles to define the specific policies that he intends to implement, explain why some things should change and others should not, and answer the objections of all who disagree.
But who, at the end, is Senator Obama? What if he does become President of the United States?
Will he run the government as if it were a graduate seminar? Dispensing Solomonic wisdom and never taking concrete action? That’s a formula for drift and indecision, which would be perfectly good in normal times, but far from good in these times.
Or is Obama a stealth radical, who will be true to the picture we had of him up until June 3? This is a recipe for the same kind of arrogance and isolation that America and the world have come to hate in the Bush Administration.
But far worse than that, it will take America where we don’t want to go. If Obama were to run for President solidly espousing the policy choices he appears to have solidly espoused in the past, he’d stand no more chance of being elected than Ralph Nader does.
Another possibility is that Obama has no fixed convictions whatsoever, beyond a commitment to proving how smart, cool and detached he is. He may simply be an insecure and arrogant man with a hole in his soul so big that only power will fill it. Power, and the delusion that destiny has singled him out for greatness, and his likeness for a place on our money.
It seems the least likely possibility of all is that Senator Obama, as President, would be true to all the centrist policy positions he has recently put on, like a comfortable pair of flip-flops with his blazer and slacks. Leadership just doesn’t emerge from nothing in two months.
So we know that America wants change. But shouldn’t we make a clear decision based on the specific changes that are being offered to us?
Yes, certainly. But Obama is not offering us any specific change. Rather he’s offering us nothing but the blind hope that the change he intends to bring will be to our liking.
So how about it, America? Are you feeling lucky?