Ambiguous tea-leaves, Part Two

Victor Davis Hanson detects in Barack Obama’s early personnel decisions “the outline of one of most profound bait-and-switch campaigns in our political history, predicated on the mass appeal of a magnetic leader rather than any principles per se.” In this account, “Obama is a masterful politician who never has had any real ideology or persona other than his own diversity story and history, youth, and charisma that together allow him to be whatever is politically expedient at the time.”

Hanson’s view is consistent with Obama’s actions to date as president-elect but, as I have argued elsewhere, hardly compelled by them. But I think Hanson is probably correct with respect to the issue he focuses the most on — the prosecution of the war on terror, narrowly defined. It would make no sense for Obama to take a soft line when it comes to going after terrorists, and Obama is a sensible politician.

More generally, I would assert three theses (to use Scott’s term) about the shape of an Obama presidency:

First, other things being equal, Obama will govern from the left. Like nearly all presidents, Obama almost certainly wants to leave a mark beyond merely the story of his becoming president. This means changing things, and as a creature of the leftist milieu, the change can be expected to come from the playbook of the left.

Second, other things are not equal. Pushing for change requires the expenditure of political capital, and the price of trying to implement many of the left’s “plays” would be steep. Obama is not eager to expend political capital, at least at this juncture. Therefore, he will probably proceed cautiously, focusing first on aspects of the leftist agenda that carry a relatively low cost.

Third, Obama’s leftist views do not seem deeply held or immune from evolution. His leftism appears to arise mostly from over-exposure (on college campuses, in Chicago’s black community, and in white liberal political circles), coupled with the fact that holding leftist positions has almost always been in his interests. Obama’s leftism does not appear to be the product of a significant amount of critical thinking.

As the campaign progressed, it became in Obama’s interests (probably for the first time) not to espouse leftist positions. I remarked at the time that Obama seemed to be picking up some of the lyrics of centrism, but not the music. And I questioned whether Obama had sufficient time to learn the tunes. By the latter stages of the campaign, with the economic crisis deepening, it no longer mattered that he do so. Obama could talk with impunity to Joe the Plumber about spreading the wealth around.

But now, to the extent that he perceives the need to proceed cautiously, Obama has more time. And to the extent that he is surrounding himself with ideologically diverse advisers on a range of issues, he may actually be in a position to revisit some of the easy assumptions that have always carried him along so handsomely.

Much leftist dogma is likely to survive whatever new thinking Obama undertakes. But if some of it is weeded out by pragmatic considerations and a bit more by critical analysis, that’s at least some change we can believe in.

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