By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
It's hard not to be dazzled by Barack Obama. At the 2004 Democratic convention, he visited with Newsweek reporters and editors, including me. I came away deeply impressed by his intelligence, his forceful language and his apparent willingness to take positions that seemed to rise above narrow partisanship. Obama has become the Democratic presidential front-runner precisely because countless millions have formed a similar opinion. It is, I now think, mistaken.
As a journalist, I harbor serious doubt about each of the most likely nominees. But with Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, I feel that I'm dealing with known quantities. They've been in the public arena for years; their views, values and temperaments have received enormous scrutiny. By contrast, newcomer Obama is largely a stage presence defined mostly by his powerful rhetoric. The trouble, at least for me, is the huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.
The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative -- to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery -- can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy. "It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white," he says. Along with millions of others, I find this a powerful appeal.
But on inspection, the metaphor is a mirage. Repudiating racism is not a magic cure-all for the nation's ills. The task requires independent ideas, and Obama has few. If you examine his agenda, it is completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems.
By Obama's own moral standards, Obama fails. Americans "are tired of hearing promises made and 10-point plans proposed in the heat of a campaign only to have nothing change," he recently said. Shortly thereafter he outlined an economic plan of at least 12 points that, among other things, would:
• Provide a $1,000 tax cut for most two-earner families ($500 for singles).
• Create a $4,000 refundable tuition tax credit for every year of college.
• Expand the child-care tax credit for people earning less than $50,000 and "double spending on quality after-school programs."
• Enact an "energy plan" that would invest $150 billion in 10 years to create a "green energy sector."
Whatever one thinks of these ideas, they're standard goody-bag politics: something for everyone. They're so similar to many Clinton proposals that her campaign put out a news release accusing Obama of plagiarizing. With existing budget deficits and the costs of Obama's "universal health plan," the odds of enacting his full package are slim.
A favorite Obama line is that he will tell "the American people not just what they want to hear but what we need to know." Well, he hasn't so far. Consider the retiring baby boomers. A truth-telling Obama might say: "Spending for retirees -- mainly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- is already nearly half the federal budget. Unless we curb these rising costs, we will crush our children with higher taxes. Reflecting longer life expectancies, we should gradually raise the eligibility ages for these programs and trim benefits for wealthier retirees. Both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for inaction. Waiting longer will only worsen the problem."
Instead, Obama pledges not to raise the retirement age and to "protect Social Security benefits for current and future beneficiaries." This isn't "change"; it's sanctification of the status quo. He would also exempt all retirees making less than $50,000 annually from income tax. By his math, that would provide average tax relief of $1,400 to 7 million retirees -- shifting more of the tax burden onto younger workers. Obama's main proposal for Social Security is to raise the payroll tax beyond the present $102,000 ceiling.
Political candidates routinely indulge in exaggeration, pandering, inconsistency and self-serving obscuration. Clinton and McCain do. The reason for holding Obama to a higher standard is that it's his standard and also his campaign's central theme. He has run on the vague promise of "change," but on issue after issue -- immigration, the economy, global warming -- he has offered boilerplate policies that evade the underlying causes of the stalemates. These issues remain contentious because they involve real conflicts or differences of opinion.
The contrast between his broad rhetoric and his narrow agenda is stark, and yet the media -- preoccupied with the political "horse race" -- have treated his invocation of "change" as a serious idea rather than a shallow campaign slogan. He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation's major problems when, so far, he isn't.