Leap of Hope
Sometimes the gambles pay off, sometimes they don’t.
Every vote for a nonincumbent Presidential candidate is in some sense a risk, given the power and complications of the job. But in both his lack of experience and the contradictions between his rhetoric and his agenda, Barack Obama presents a particular leap of hope. It is a sign of how fed up Americans are with Republicans that millions are ready to take that leap even in dangerous times.
To his supporters, such as Colin Powell, the first-term Senator has the chance to be “transformational,” the kind of gauzy concept that testifies to Mr. Obama’s unusual appeal. His candidacy is certainly historic, and that isn’t simply a reference to his Kenyan father and American mother. One secret to Mr. Obama’s success is how little his campaign has been marked by race, at least not by the traditional politics of racial grievance. He has run instead on a rhetorical theme of national unity, a shrewd appeal to voters weary of the polarizing debate over Iraq and the Bush Presidency.
Mr. Obama has also understood the political moment better than his opponents in either party. In the primaries, he used his inexperience to advantage by offering himself as a liberal alternative to what seemed like an inevitable, and dispiriting, Clinton replay. He then turned around in the general election to project sober reassurance amid the financial crisis, which was the moment when his poll numbers began to climb above the margin of error against John McCain. His coolness reflects what seems to be a first-class temperament. And while community organizing may not be much of a credential for the Presidency, Mr. Obama’s ability to organize a campaign speaks well of his potential to manage a government.
None of this changes the fact that voters still know remarkably little about a man who is less than four years out of the Illinois state Senate. While he has already written two autobiographies, there are significant gaps in Mr. Obama’s political resume. The nature of his relationship with onetime friend and political contributor Tony Rezko, a convicted felon, or with radicals Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, not to mention Acorn, remains ambiguous or contradictory.
They were all early supporters or mentors, yet during this campaign Mr. Obama has eventually disavowed each one. This is perhaps testimony to a ruthless pragmatism, or maybe opportunism, but what do those relationships say about what he really believes? He is fortunate the media have been so incurious about them — as opposed, say, to Sarah Palin’s Wasilla church or Joe Wurzelbacher’s plumbing business.
More importantly, it remains unclear how Mr. Obama intends to govern. As a political candidate, he has presented himself as a consensus-oriented bridge-builder. But for all his talk about reaching across the aisle, we can think of no major issue where he has disagreed with his party’s dominant interest groups or broken with liberal orthodoxy. Not one. The main example he cites — “ethics reform” — is the kind of trivial Beltway compromise that changes nothing about the way Washington works.
Unlike Newark Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, Mr. Obama opposes school vouchers and would water down the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Unlike Bill Clinton, Mr. Obama is ambivalent at best about free trade. His promise to abrogate the North American Free Trade Agreement, if Canada and Mexico refuse to bargain, is a more breathtaking case of U.S. “unilateralism” than anything Mr. Bush has done. Nafta is a 15-year old pact enacted by a Democratic Congress and President. The Kyoto Protocol had never even been submitted to the Senate when Mr. Bush refused to support it.
If he is elected, Mr. Obama would immediately face the same kind of large, liberal Democratic majority on Capitol Hill that did so much to ruin Jimmy Carter and the first two years of the Clinton Presidency. Is there anything its liberal barons want that he’d oppose? He hasn’t said so. On the contrary, Mr. Obama’s voting record and agenda suggest that the “transformation” he may have in mind is a return to the pre-Reagan era of government expansion and liberal ascendancy.
Amid a recession, with the mortgage market already nationalized and the banking industry partly so, the next President needs to draw some lines against further politicization of our economy. Perhaps Mr. Obama will surprise by appointing Paul Volcker as his Treasury Secretary, or postponing his tax increases with the economy in distress. But those are further leaps of hope with little evidence of pragmatism to back them up.
On national security, Mr. Obama is an even greater man of mystery. Perhaps once in office he will take the course of prudent realism. He can certainly sound hawkish when he wants to, advocating unilateral military strikes inside Pakistan and promising the kind of open-ended commitment to the Afghan conflict that he claims we can’t afford or sustain in Iraq. Yet he ran irresponsibly against the surge in Iraq and now has his lucky stars to thank that Mr. McCain prevailed in that debate, so Mr. Obama would inherit a far more stable Middle East. His belief that diplomacy can stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions is also naive, and we suspect would be shown to be so early in his Administration with an Iranian nuclear declaration, if not a test.
As Joe Biden recently said, an Obama Presidency would invite challenges from enemies who would tread more cautiously against a President McCain. Perhaps Mr. Obama will evolve into a Truman, or perhaps he’ll prove merely to be another Jimmy Carter. Unlike Mr. McCain, he’ll be making it up as he goes.
Perhaps this is the kind of leadership the American people want after the Presidential certitudes of the Bush years. Americans certainly are eager for fresh start, and it is typical of periods of economic panic that they may even be willing to reach for the kind of alluring but untested appeal that so marks Mr. Obama. Sometimes these gambles pay off, and sometimes they don’t.