Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Surprising Endorsement (The Hidden Brooks)

I usually don't give David Brooks much virtual ink here, but with a column titled Run, Barack, Run (fully available to Times Select subscribers), how could I not?
Barack Obama should run for president.

He should run first for the good of his party. It would demoralize the Democrats to go through a long primary season with the most exciting figure in the party looming off in the distance like some unapproachable dream. The next Democratic nominee should either be Barack Obama or should have the stature that would come from defeating Barack Obama.

Second, he should run because of his age. Obama’s inexperience is his most obvious shortcoming. Over the next four years, the world could face a genocidal civil war in Iraq, a wave of nuclear proliferation, more Islamic extremism and a demagogues’ revolt against globalization. Do we really want a forty-something in the White House?

And yet in his new book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama makes a strong counterargument. He notes that it’s time to move beyond the political style of the baby boom generation. This is a style, he said in an interview late Tuesday, that is highly moralistic and personal, dividing people between who is good and who is bad.


The third reason Obama should run for president is his worldview. At least in the way he conceptualizes the world, he is not an orthodox liberal. In the book, he harks back to a Hamiltonian tradition that calls not for big government, but for limited yet energetic government to enhance social mobility. The contemporary guru he cites most is Warren Buffett.

He has interesting things to say about the way culture and economics intertwine to create urban poverty. He, conceptually, welcomes free trade and thinks the U.S. may have no choice but to improvise and slog it out in Iraq.

The chief problem in his book is that after launching off on some interesting description of a problem, he will settle back, when it comes time to make a policy suggestion, into a familiar and small-bore Democratic proposal. I’d give him an A for conception but a B-minus for policy creativity.

Obama, who is nothing if not honest about himself, is aware of the problem, and has various explanations for it. And what matters at this point is not his platform, but the play of his mind. He is one of those progressives, like Gordon Brown in Britain, who is thinking about the challenges of globalization outside the normal clichés.

Coming from my own perspective, I should note that I disagree with many of Obama’s notions and could well end up agreeing more with one of his opponents. But anyone who’s observed him closely can see that Obama is a new kind of politician. As (Joe) Klein (in Time Magazine) once observed, he’s that rarest of creatures: a megahyped phenomenon that lives up to the hype.

Paul Waldman in his commentary, The Obama Zeitgeist, over at Tom Paine comes up with some similar notions:
In 2000, Bush offered a political reconciliation: Elect me and the bitter partisanship will come to an end. “I don’t have enemies to fight,” he said at his 2000 convention, “and I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.”

That was a promise that today no one could plausibly claim Bush meant in the first place, but it was just what many Americans wanted to hear. In a similar way—and sincerely, it appears—Obama is offering a national reconciliation. Bush made an argument about who he was—upstanding, moderate, uninterested in partisan sniping. Obama makes an argument about who we are, in the hopes that we can get beyond what divides us even though we disagree, and move to a new era of comity, perhaps not in Washington but in our own lives. Whether a politician can accomplish such a thing is not particularly relevant; the question is how much people want to believe what he says. He has kept sounding the same themes in the two years since.

It is this element of the political identity Obama has sought to create that distinguishes him, and that is so finely tuned to the current historical moment. Before he decided against running, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner was trying to fashion a version of this message, talking about his success in a red state finding solutions that were neither liberal nor conservative. The only problem with this argument—apart from the fact that he was making a general election case about not being partisan to Democratic primary voters, who are quite partisan—is that it confronts the problem too directly. It says, “You don’t like partisanship? I’m no partisan!” Obama’s message is much broader, seeming to have less to do with what kind of health care plan he’ll propose than about how we feel about one another and our country.


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