The Age of Obama

The ‘Decade of Greed,’ etc., R.I.P.

Nineteen eighty-two was a lucky time (as your columnist can attest) to be leaving college. Whatever faults various authorities find in the “decade of greed,” which was followed by another decade of greed, it marked the start of 25 years of exceptional prosperity and opportunity. Freer trade and the epochal joining of a couple billion Chinese and others into the global division of labor played a role. The ideas of Reagan and Thatcher, bringing the private sector back to a place of honor, played a role.

[Business World] AP

Is the age of Obama the beginning of a less golden age? We cast no aspersion on the man or his program. Mr. Obama, in his short career, has not strongly associated himself with any policy idea. His relation to his own proposals during the campaign has been pleasantly noncommittal, if generally liberal (as voters and the media are only now getting around to noticing).

His rise offers little insight either. His Senate primary and general election races were smoothed by the serendipitous bowing out of formidable opponents in each case, in divorce-related “scandals.” His presidential hopes have been turned overnight into landslide hopes by a financial crisis that has left the public angry and confused, though not one that plays to any expertise of Mr. Obama’s.

Yet if he wins next week, it could be with a sweeping mandate to decide, er, what his mandate will be. He’s a presidential vehicle perfectly designed, or self-designed, to be driven by history, rather than driving it. And he comes just at the moment when, overnight, crashing down is just about every normal restraint against intrusive, redistributing, regulating government.

This is the door the remarkable Mr. Obama is about to waltz through.

In a two-party system, both parties need to be capable of governing, of having some long view of the central challenge — which, arguably, in our case remains the financing challenge of the American welfare state. John McCain may not be much of an economist and hasn’t adopted the “ownership society” as his slogan, but his health-care plan falls right in with tradition on the center right — a spectrum that once included Bill Clinton — of invoking a new role for individual responsibility and individual choice in making the welfare state work.

Democrats, in contrast, never really tell us where they want us to go. That hasn’t been the Democratic way and Mr. Obama, in this, is a perfect Democrat — as opaque on the big question as his party has been. Al Gore let on that he favored a single payer health-care system only two years after he lost the White House. Politics — simple politics — instead has been Democrats’ governing philosophy, and Mr. Obama is, again, the perfect heir.

In an interesting piece of work, economist Henning Bohn has forecast the future voting propensities of an aging electorate based on two things: how much in taxes a median voter would expect to pay until retirement, and the present value of his or her expected Social Security and Medicare benefits.

His conclusion: It will make financial sense for the median voter to vote for higher taxes on his remaining working years and on younger people in order to secure his benefits.

If he’s right, Democrats need to say only one thing when running for office — and that’s nothing intelligible about the funding dilemma of the welfare state or the need to address it. Mr. Obama has evidently learned his politics well. This week, he told Time Magazine’s Joe Klein that, after the current financial crisis, “a new energy economy . . . That’s going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office.”

This is a cipher, an air sandwich. Mr. Obama here affords himself a placeholder for a priority to be named later. He knows that such impractical, centrally planned “energy revolutions” have been preached by candidates and op-ed writers for decades, only to be forgotten after inauguration day in favor of less rhetorical agendas.

Mr. Obama’s knack for eliciting pleasing feelings of self-regard in his followers is certainly a political virtue. (That so many of John McCain’s supporters must hold their noses is, in its way, the equal and opposite virtue.) More than that, the vagueness of Mr. Obama’s governing philosophy is a natural fit for a party that has long been wedded to the strategy that you get where you’re going (a bigger welfare state) by not saying where you’re going.

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