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Are We Underestimating Obama?

Scott’s observations on Obamanations are a good introduction to this provocative piece by our friend Steve Hayes in today’s Wall Street Journal. Steve’s thesis is that the commonplace criticism of Obama, that he is all generalities and no substance, misses the mark. In fact, he compares Obama to Ronald Reagan, against whom similar criticisms were leveled. Steve includes our references to Obama as “Chance the Gardener,” the character played by Peter Sellers in Being There, in his litany of conservative underestimation of Obama. Steve argues that Obama is more than that:

The assumption behind much of this criticism is that because Mr. Obama gives a good speech he cannot do substance. This is wrong. Mr. Obama has done well in most of the Democratic debates because he has consistently shown himself able to think on his feet. Even on health care, a complicated national issue that should be Mrs. Clinton’s strength, Mr. Obama has regularly fought her to a draw by displaying a grasp of the details that rivals hers, and talking about it in ways Americans can understand.
In Iowa, long before the race became the national campaign it is today, Mr. Obama spent much of his time at town halls in which he took questions from the audience. His answers in such settings were often as good or better than the rhetoric in his stump speech, and usually more substantive. He spoke about issues like immigration and national service in a thoughtful manner — not wonky, not pedantic, but in a way that suggested he’d spent some time thinking about them before.
More important for the race ahead, Mr. Obama has the unique ability to offer doctrinaire liberal positions in a way that avoids the stridency of many recent Democratic candidates. That he managed to do this in the days before the Iowa caucuses — at a time when he might have been expected to be at his most liberal — was quite striking.

Steve emailed us this morning to let us know about his piece and invite us to “feel free to smack [him] around on Power Line.” Actually, though, I agree with him. Barack Obama is a very able man and a formidable opponent.
Conservatives complain about Obama’s vagueness mostly because they want to expose the dedicated liberal lurking behind Obama’s modeerate demeanor. In truth, though, Obama’s liberalism is no secret. His voting record, the policy positions laid out on his web site, and his own answers to questions in debates and town hall meetings make it clear that he is an unreconstructed liberal.
Obama’s appeal lies, in part, in his ability to make liberalism seem palatable. Unlike Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, he is generally not shrill or hectoring. He comes across as calm and reasonable. In this, he really does resemble Ronald Reagan.
There are obvious differences between Reagan and Obama, of course. Reagan was a life-long student of Communism, while Obama is not yet a life-long student of anything. Most important, Reagan was devoted to conservatism, which is essentially true, while Obama is devoted to liberalism, which is essentially false. This means that Obama’s policies, no matter how smoothly he may advocate them, will never be as successful as Reagan’s.
Here, though, lies the rub, in my view. Ronald Reagan came to power at a time when America had been carrying out, for sixteen years, an experiment with liberalism that by 1980 had brought the country to the brink of catastrophe. Americans did not adopt conservative principles because they sounded good on first hearing. They adopted conservative principles because of bitter experience with the alternative.
Today, the benefit of that experience has largely been lost. A generation of American voters has not experienced the failures of the Great Society, the near-collapse of American cities, double-digit inflation and unemployment, seventy percent tax brackets, or the disaster of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. In the absence of historical memory, and with a powerful assist from the ever-forgetful press, liberalism is once again emerging as the philosophy that sounds good. The fact that it doesn’t work awaits as an unpleasant surprise for a new generation. In the meantime, Barack Obama may well be the plausible candidate who can lead voters, once again, down the blind alley of leftism. He is, as Steve Hayes argues, an opponent who must be taken seriously.
Which doesn’t preclude, of course, the occasional moment of ridicule when he slips into his Chance the Gardener mode.
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