Saturday, January 5, 2008

What If Obama Were President?

Barack Obama has, for the time being, pulled Hillary's teeth. Edwards can't possibly win due to his having taken matching funds. So my previous assertion that Hillary's a shoo-in may have been premature. This is, frankly, the most remarkable result of the campaign so far. Obama's skill in puncturing Hillary is breathtaking.

So, given that the Republicans continue to gaze into their navels and find nothing, there is now an excellent chance that Barack Obama may be the next President of the United States. What does this mean?

First and foremost, Obama appears to be intensely competent in all the ways that Bush isn't. He's flexible: when things don't work he changes them. He gets good advice. He's realistic and isn't afraid of compromise. For someone with little or no executive experience, he seems to have the executive mindset that's needed to be president. I don't see Obama wilting in a crisis. And the man is an almost scarily gifted leader.

The down-side of an Obama presidency is that he'll get almost all of his domestic agenda enacted. This is a mixture of good and bad news. I don't detect many protectionist inclinations in Obama (good). His energy plan is rational. He may be a bit overzealous in carbon caps (bad), but he's pushing hard on the R&D front as well (good). He's at least giving lip-service to nuclear power (good), but I'm not sure there's much more than that (bad). I suppose we'll have massive health care reform (mostly bad, I think, but it's an issue whose time has come). Hopefully we'll be left with ways for medical innovators to make money. Clearly the tax system will be much more progressive (bad for me, but mostly good for the country). I would expect taxation as a percentage of GDP to go up quite a bit (somewhat bad, but it's too low at 26%, where it's at now).

So, from an agenda standpoint, things aren't awful. The real question is whether he'll be able to restrain a Democratic Congress from going hog-wild on public spending. If there's a cloture-proof Senate, I expect Obama to quite restrained. If not, I have no idea whether he has the stomach to rein in his own party. Indeed, the worst attribute of an Obama presidency will be the absence of divided government. Of course, that changes in two years if things are perceived as going off the rails.

What about foreign policy? Well, most of what he's said is either naive or insane. However, most presidents know next to nothing about foreign policy when they take office. That's why the State Department and DoD exist to provide professionalism and institutional memory. So I'm not worried about him taking any head-to-head meetings with the Dear Leader or Ahmadinejad. He's been more aggressive about getting out of Iraq recently, but presumably the military can convince him to exercise benign neglect long enough for us to soft-land that situation. It'd be lovely to have bases in Iraq as a deterrent to Iran, but we can probably project enough force without them to keep the Gulf secure. In fact, the foreign policy arena is so constrained that it's almost impossible to change strategy very much or very quickly. What's required above all is negotiating skill and subtlety. Obama has those traits, certainly much more than Bushco. So I'm not too worried that his predispositions will get us in more trouble than his nuance will be able to get us out of.

Obama has bet big on a radically different kind of political discourse and appears to be winning the bet. While I'm not wild about his policy ideas, his ability to appeal to "the better angels of our nature" is a huge positive. To continue to do that requires that he practice moderation. He seems willing to do that.

What a radical idea!

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