November 1, 2008

Obamaism part II (”substantive”): what’s it about? with surprises

     “Obamaism” could and will have volumes written about it, but something fairly brief may be useful here. (One would have written this earlier but one has been quite busy; getting it out before the election may be of use or interest though, so here it is.)
     In August’s Obamaism, part I (pace “The Obama Nation”), we covered “procedural” and presentational Obamaism, e.g.,

     …Obama’s perceived populism and “big tent” attitude–and its technological corollaries like using the Internet to reach huge numbers of people…. “Hope” and “change”, two of Obama’s very favorite Obamaisms….

, to which we might add the “glacial cool” which many people noted during his debates with John McVolcano, oops, John McCain.

     As for some of the substantive positions or values, we’ll try to trace them in a brief, sometimes even telegraphic, way here.

     A one-sentence summary of “Obamaism” could go something like

     “more Democratic-tradition state involvement to help, not to harm, the mass of the people, and with relatively non-coercive, non-Establishment, community-based, moralistic, opportunity-enhancing, bipartisan, and libertarian elements strongly represented; and with foreign and domestic policies including tough, forward-looking, reformist, optimistic, transformative, and diplomatic features.”

     That is all still a little vague, but people are free to challenge it, or add parts to it. (One suspects much of it holds up, though: e.g, “state involvement to help, not to harm, the mass of the people” could refer to giving subsidies to citizens to buy health care (helping people) instead of…more George W. Bush-style wiretapping (hurting people).)

     Now, how is Obamaism different from “Democratism” in general? Looking at Clintonism, for example, we see Establishment corporatism, and looking at Edwardsism, we see populism and…maybe not demagoguery, but big promises, perhaps. Obamaism is in something of a comfortable middle ground between those two extremes, and with less coercion as well, cf. my diary Hillary on employers: “Ve vill see your HEALTH PAPERS!!” on Hillary’s (and Edwards’) plan for a state command that citizens purchase health insurance at the risk of punishment; a coercive mandate that Obamaism, for the most part, rejects.
     For Obama, there may be less big government than in the FDR or LBJ eras, too, although the government will try to help more than, say, Bush did during Katrina. It would be hard not to help more than that.
     Finally about -isms for now, there is also a Reaganistic optimism and charisma about Obama, and a Deanistic fire and willingness to use the Internet to communicate and raise funds, and also a willingness to wage a 50-state fight for his party and country.
     But Obama is no Reagan, as will be seen further below…

Clean laundry and liberty

     Much of the rest of this essay could be a laundry list of Obama proposals or practices, which often reflect traditional Democratic stances that are relatively anti-war, pro-environment, pro-working/middle class, etc.: e.g., a withdrawal from Iraq in 1 1/3 years; applauding diplomacy, but being willing to attack al-Qaida targets in Pakistan without Pakistani permission; a green economy without excess offshore drilling; a refusal to take money from Federal lobbyists; lower taxes for 95% of taxpayers; support for Roe v. Wade but not for late-term abortion; etc. However, that might be a waste of space, and people can just go to Barack Obama’s website or books for that.
     In any case, even the short list of Obama proposals above looks more like clean laundry than dirty, which is nice. But are there just discrete “nice ideas”, or some thread running through it all?
     –One useful prism to examine Obama’s ideas through is that of liberty or freedom. For example, going down the list of Obama’s issue stances, Obama looks a little like Kos’s ideal libertarian Democrat.
     In addition, although the author of this present diary is no fan of Richard Posner the infamous judge and free-market-worshipping writer, one wonders if Obama’s time at the University of Chicago Law School, with Posner as a fellow faculty member, may have influenced Obama.–which may be a surprise to some people, but surprises happen. (Cf. the Chicago Sun-Times, Strong, silent type, on Posner’s treating Obama nicely when Obama was in his court for a case; and the blog of Posner and Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker for an entertaining article on paying children to go to school; an article which reviews some of the principles of Milton Friedman–and as the present author remembers from law school, Posner himself–on making direct payments to the un-wealthy rather than making them go through a welfare bureaucracy.
     This idea may be reflected in Obama’s increased tax refunds or payments to the poor, and also his reticence to force people through the hoop of mandated buying health insurance, since he would rather just give them subsidies. –Obama may even have the IRS fill in your taxes for you! which would take a little more time on the part of that bureaucracy, but lessen the time that you yourself would have to deal with that bureaucracy.)

     Indeed, speaking of freedom, Obama takes some time in his book “The Audacity of Hope” to present a simplified version of Isaiah Berlin’s idea of “negative and positive liberty”. (There may be good things, e.g., literacy with ideas, about Obama being an intellectual and lecturer/professor.) “Negative liberty” being largely “the right to be left alone” (Obama), and “positive liberty” according more with things like opportunity, e.g., being able to do something valuable, or self-developing, with your liberty.

     Obama goes on in “Audacity” to talk about the value of both of these types of liberty, plus the value in other combinations or antitheses, e.g., individual plus community, etc. He also humanizes the whole thing by talking about the core value of empathy, i.e., “How would that make you feel?” (Obama), and also nationalizes/value-izes it all by mentioning Ronald Reagan’s evoked “sense of common purpose”. In fact, speaking of Reagan, Obama is not too nice to Democrats, saying in “Audacity” that their perceived rejection of morals and values hurt Democrats a good deal. Which does not make Obamaism into Reaganism Jr., but it does make Obamaism savvy–and moral. But without being so moralistic as to demean liberty or free choice.

Social distortion; and, the future of Obamaism

     So a “classical” model of Obamaism, with “more government help, but without much coercion”, is roughly sketched out above. There may, of course, be some departures from or distortions in that model, e.g., Obama’s support for both the Employee Free Choice Act and the Freedom of Choice Act (which sound Orwellian-ly similar), legislative proposals which may not really protect the secret ballot for employees, or protect the right of states to regulate abortions (or–some allege–protect embryo/fetal rights, as much as some readers may hate that phrase). Also, Obama would mandate some private citizens to buy insurance…for their children; less obtrusive than what Hillary Clinton or John Edwards wanted, but still not very libertarian.
     Not to mention Obama’s perceived “shift rightward” after he got over half of the delegates and became the presumed nominee; more about that in the next installment, probably…
     But the core model does not seem to have been obliterated by the departures from the norm. At least not yet; especially since the public seems to see enough differences between Obamaism and “PalMcCainism” to choose Obamaism, according to most polls.

     –There may be a part III or more to this series, including changes in “Obamaism” after Obama cinched the Democratic nomination. And it may not be of only historical interest, since it may be helpful in keeping a victorious Obama true to his putative originial ideas/ideals. Feel free to formulate your own pithy version of Obamaism, either procedural or substantive, and stay tuned!

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