What happened to Obama-ism?
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.
Posted by: Ulium | January 21, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 23, 2011 2:58 AM | Report abuse