Barack Obama hasn’t been sworn in yet, but he already is disappointing his supporters on the Left. Some Republicans are almost giddy at the mainstream appointments Obama has made or is reported to be considering–Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Tom Daschle, Bob Gates, and so on. Jennifer Rubin, for example, writes:
Little did we know that “Change we can believe in” really meant “Change that will delight the Right and freak out the Left.”
Jennifer posits three possible explanations for Obama’s seeming moderation: indifference to national security policy; cynical opportunism; and political calculation. No doubt all three explanations contain a kernel of truth, but, with all due respect, I think that Jennifer and quite a few others are overlooking the obvious.
Throughout the campaign, when Obama talked about “change” what he mostly meant was having an African-American in the White House. His vagueness on this score was often criticized by those who care about policy, but most of his supporters understood perfectly well what he meant. A black man in the Oval Office was change enough for them. Obama’s signature issue during the early phase of the campaign was the war in Iraq, but when it became inconvenient to talk about that issue, Obama dropped it without a qualm and his supporters, with relatively few exceptions, didn’t hold it against him.
I think that Obama is similar to Bill Clinton in one important respect. Clinton famously wanted to be President not because there was anything in particular he wanted to do, but because he craved the status of being President. In Clinton’s case, this seems to have been due to an insatiable need for approval and affection. Obama, likewise, wants to be President not in order to do anything, but because he believes that for Barack Obama to be President is an end in itself. In Obama’s case, this view is due not to a psychological craving, but rather to the historical importance of being the first African-American President.
If I’m right about that, it makes sense for Obama to be reasonably moderate. He makes history simply by being a President with dark skin; what he desperately wants to avoid is for his Presidency to be seen as a disaster or a fiasco. Thus his sudden moderation on foreign policy: Obama is smart enough to understand that it is always possible for things to go wrong, but if the public perceives that an international setback is due to weakness, the President is in trouble. He’s Jimmy Carter. If a President is perceived as tough on foreign policy and something goes wrong, voters will say that they’re glad we have a hard guy in the White House.
In domestic policy Obama has more latitude, but here too it makes sense for him to play it safe. If he completes a mainstream Presidency successfully, he goes down in history. If he goes out on a limb and is marked down as a failure, it will be a setback for African Americans, more or less forever.
This doesn’t mean that Obama isn’t the most liberal politician ever elected President. He is, and no doubt that liberalism will manifest itself over and over during his administration. But it will be tempered, I think, by a high level of risk-aversion, a caution that would not be present if Obama were mainly an ideologue rather than a racial symbol.
Conservatives don’t generally see it this way because they don’t care about race. But lots of people do, and that fact will be central to an Obama administration that may well turn out to be more moderate than most have expected, on both the left and the right.
PAUL adds: I don’t see how anyone on the “right” can be “delighted” with the selection of Rahm Emmanuel, Tom Daschle, and (if it happens) Hillary Clinton. As John says, were they expecting Bernadine Dohrn?
I continue to believe that Obama won’t tack hard to the left on both the foreign and domestic fronts at the beginning. His initial focus, I think, will be a leftist domestic agenda. He has plenty of leeway, as John suggests, because the economic situation is so grim now. I don’t see Obama playing “small ball” here. I question whether his fear of being a failure will be sufficient to deter him from attempting to have a grand presidency.
In terms of foreign policy, look for Obama to provide the trimmings of a moderate policy. And don’t expect transparent softness. But be fearful that, over time, Obama will bring the U.S. into the “international fold” through the International Criminal Court, the Law of the Sea Treaty, etc. And don’t think that, if she becomes Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the liberal internationalist, will attempt to prevent these assaults on our right of self government.
JOHN adds: One point I didn’t make that should be part of the mix is that Obama, because of his own lack of experience, had little alternative to staffing his administration with veterans of Bill Clinton’s two terms. Victor Davis Hanson makes the point very clearly. To the extent that Obama’s moderation is manifested by surrounding himself with Clintonistas, necessity is a more persuasive explanation than ideology. But it also fits with the risk-aversion that I posited above.