December 3, 2008

Brace for the Change You Do Not Believe In

From The Huffington Post and Daily Kos to National Review and The Washington Times – and all the mainstream media in between – commentators are puzzling over who the dickens President-elect Barack Obama really is. On the progressive left, they are beginning to fear he may not be for “redistributive justice.” On The Wall Street Journal free market right, they are seeing in his economic team the possibility that he is really as safe for capitalism as a banker. Karl Rove has concluded: “(The) announcement of Mr. Obama’s economic team was reassuring. He’s generally surrounded himself with intelligent, mainstream advisers.”

Those impassioned by the anti-war slogan “no blood for oil” are getting nervous. According to Politico, Jodie Evans – a CodePink co-founder who, with her husband, helped raise a lot of money for Obama during the primary and general elections – recalled her interaction with Obama: “It has gotten to the point where he sees me coming and before I am close he just keeps repeating, ‘Jodie, I PROMISE, I will end the war, I promise I will end the war.’”

The mainstream media, still warmed by the success of their work electing Obama, comfortably headlined an article on the topic in the National Journal: “THE PRESIDENT-ELECT’S APPOINTMENTS REFLECT HIS CONFIDENCE IN HIS OWN IDIOSYNCRATIC BLUEPRINT AND HIS ABILITY TO HOLD TOGETHER AN ECLECTIC ADMINISTRATION.”

It is a pity the conversation about what Obama might actually do as president didn’t begin in the media until after the election. But not to worry. As Emma Goldman, a 20th-century anarchist and Marxist, is reputed to have said: “In America, elections are the opium of the people.” Well, we have had our fix, no matter how uninformed we were during the injection.

There is something degrading about serious, prominent political people of the left or right (to say nothing of the broader public) being forced to play policy hide-and-seek with the president-elect of the United States. And there is something presumptive about a president-elect who is very satisfied to keep the public guessing about what he stands for and what he plans to do. It is redolent of the most cynical of 19th-century European politics. But if he wants us to play the guessing game, I’ll play.

I suspect that free market advocates need to be careful not to jump to early conclusions about Obama. The fact that he has selected a senior team of credible, centrist financial men and women does not mean he is committed to free markets. As a cautious, shrewd man, he understands that he must steady the markets and the economy before he can start on his more ambitious, redistributive policies. As he said last week, don’t worry about the centrist, experienced Clinton appointees he is selecting; it is his job, as president, to be the change.

Unlike some of his supporters, I take Obama at his word. In my reading of history, men with his level of intentionally displayed self-confidence should be believed when they earlier have asserted grand – even grandiose – goals. Whether they are actually that self-confident or tormented by secret self-doubt, it often leads to efforts at grand and “heroic” public policies once in office.

And as long as the president-elect will not declare himself publicly, these foolish psychological games are necessary. So I rather doubt that a man with his self-image is likely to be content to leave the White House eight years from now having been a mere steward of Republican capitalism and military policy. I suspect he wants to play for the history books and do something dramatic with America. I suspect, as he says, he intends to be the change – and not merely of the “can’t we all just get along?” variety. In fact, I suspect he doesn’t want to get along with his philosophical opposition; he wants to overwhelm us politically.

On the foreign policy front, likewise, solid appointments may not lead to solid policies. Remember during the campaign when he was on his way to Iraq and he was quite dismissive of the role of the top generals? Once again, he used the phrase “my job, as president,” and he said it is to make the policy. He said the generals’ job is merely to carry out his orders. That was a very unrealistic view of the relationship between civilian and military leadership – even by the example of such towering civilian leaders as FDR, Churchill and Lincoln.

Here is my suggestion to those who disagree with what, during and before the campaign, Obama seemed to be saying about economics, diplomacy, culture and foreign policy: Do not take too much comfort from his appointees. Brace for the change you do not believe in.


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