Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Posted at 9:32 AM ET, 01/21/2011

What happened to Obama-ism?

By Ezra Klein


Noam Scheiber commends Obama's op-ed on regulation as a useful distillation of the essence of "Obama-ism." In particular, Noam points out two sentences: First, "we are seeking more affordable, less intrusive means to achieve the same ends." And second, "It means using disclosure as a tool to inform consumers of their choices, rather than restricting those choices." You'll note that both sentences carry an implicit critique of the state.

That's because a critique of the state -- or at least a mistrust in it -- underlies a lot of Obama's thinking. Tim Lee wrote yesterday that "liberalism in general has internalized key libertarian critiques of earlier iterations of liberal thought, with the result that a guy with a largely Friedmanite policy agenda can plausibly call himself a liberal." I don't know that that's true for all generations of liberals, but it's certainly true for Obama's generation of liberals, which came of age under Reagan. Back in early-2008, I did some reporting on the contrast in governing philosophies of both Obama and Hillary Clinton. Here's the relevant bit on Obama:

In his book The Audacity of Hope, he admits to appreciating the Gipper's understanding of government's failings. "Reagan's central insight," he wrote, "that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic … contained a good deal of truth." This insight was hardly peculiar to Reagan; it was shared by a generation of community organizers, Obama among them, who fought with public bureaucracies every day. This insight has led Obama to the belief that individuals should experience a government as gentle and unfussy as possible.

In my talks with his advisers, the term "iPod government" repeatedly came up, a reference to Obama's desire for a sleeker, easier-to-use state. This guiding principle helps explain how he came up with a health-care plan without an individual mandate. Obama's fears that care would prove unaffordable and individuals would be left begging for exemptions from some unconcerned bureaucrat outweighed concerns that the healthy would opt-out of the system and that the insurers wouldn't cover everyone at a fair price if "everyone" meant only the sick. It's that thread that reconciles his philosophical preference for single-payer with his programmatic eschewing of universal care. Single-payer is simple. Mandates are more complicated, and Obama fears that a mismatch between affordability measures and care costs will leave individuals fighting with the state for coverage. Better the policy be meeker and the experience smoother than risk a strong policy's potential to force the unsuspecting into unwanted dealings with an unfamiliar bureaucracy.

Similarly, Obama's stimulus plan is essentially a quick, across-the-board tax cut. Clinton's is a series of tax credits and targeted subsidies. The difference between the plans, again, is between the ease-of-implementation of Obama's and the specificity of Clinton's. Her targeted credits help worthwhile programs and do more to target the worst-off, but in so doing, they create an essentially means-tested stimulus package that would require beneficiaries to prove their distress. Obama, by contrast, offers a large payroll tax rebate that would require little in the way of administration.

In this, as in much else, Obama betrays a universalist streak. Government is simplest when it is unspecific—it's when it starts trying to subdivide the population and impact only targeted groups that it becomes hard to administer (think of how little trouble seniors have accessing a universal program like Social Security versus how much trouble the poor have trying to determine eligibility for a means-tested program like Medicaid). If Kennedy wanted a rising tide to lift all boats, Obama wants us all in one boat to better navigate the waves. But before he can rehabilitate the universalist approach to government, the experience of interacting with government must be bettered. In a world where a trip to the DMV is such a Kafkaesque odyssey that you can actually hire individuals to undergo the torment for you, unifying the public square first means beautifying it. So Obama's detailed plans for more government accountability and transparency precede and even take priority over his plans for what the newly accountable and transparent government should do. Till that day when government is reformed and citizens' trust is ensured, that new government must be used with care, and its capabilities should not be overestimated.

The policy preferences the Obama campaign was using to distinguish itself from Clinton were mostly tossed aside when Obama took office. He added an individual mandate to his health-care plan because, well, he needed one to make it work. The stimulus ended up funding a lot of targeted programs rather than a massive, across-the-board tax cut. Obama's hope that he could change the public's perception of government failed, and instead the public changed their perception of him as they began to identify him with the government.

That ends up being the problem with attempts to tightly define something like Obama-ism (which I've attempted any number of times): A president's clean philosophies of governance rarely survive first contact with Congress. There's a reason that an op-ed Obama wrote on regulation offers, in some ways, a clearer distillation of his thinking than the health-care bill does: Obama doesn't need to pass his new regulatory rules through the Senate.

Photo credit: Ricky Carioti Photo.

By Ezra Klein  | January 21, 2011; 9:32 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Could we replace the individual mandate?
Next: The Founders' health-care mandate


No matter how much you and Lee and maybe even Obama say so, I don't know how you can call this liberalism. In "Obama's generation" there were and are plenty of people who despise Reagan and his assertion that the "liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic," and who recognize such claims as the essence of conservatism. Yes, there are now people like Lee (and you) who call this neo-liberalism liberalism, but that no more makes it so than do recent shifts make us traditional liberals "socialists".

Liberalism is not just defined as "whatever the mainstream of the Democratic party does". Among other things, liberalism is more concerned with alleviating the suffering of the poor and unhealthy than it is with " a strong policy's potential to force the unsuspecting into unwanted dealings with an unfamiliar bureaucracy." The latter is conservative Reaganite BS, and if some members of the left (such as Obama) have adopted such anxieties as so important as to require severe restrictions on government programs ("reforming" welfare; mandates instead of single payer), that's just standard centrism or (in any other country) center-rightism. If "liberalism" has any meaning -- besides what mainstream Democrats espouse in any given year -- it ain't liberalism.

Posted by: Ulium | January 21, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse


Why are commentators so unwilling to discuss the often very likely possibility that the guy is just lying, or choosing a position not because he honestly thinks it's best, but because he thinks he has to to get elected, for political capital, and as a result of these things perhaps for the greater good.

You honeslty think by the second primary debate on this, if not right from the beginning, that a guy as smart and studious as Obama didn't understand a plan like his was impossible without an individual mandate?

He knew. He knew what he was saying opposing an individual mandate was wrong. He said it anyway because he thought it would help him get elected, which I think he thought would be for the greater good.

I mean comon. Why does everyone have to always assume that a politician means everything he says and then try to come up with some convoluted explanation for why he believes these things.

Lying and taking positions to get elected obviously happens. Please let's stop assuming these things away.

Obama says and does a lot of this stuff not because he's brain damaged from living through the Reagan era, or any other convoluted explanation. He's often just lying about what he thinks and what he really supports because he thinks it will gain him political capital and be for the greater good. And without doing this at least sometimes almost no one could be very successful in politics.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 23, 2011 2:58 AM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company