Obama is Boring

03Sep08

The newspapers, the last couple of days, are full of headlines about John McCain the “risk-taker” and the “maverick” due to McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. I’m not going to talk about Palin, except to note that taking an inexperienced, provinicial, secessionist-loving, creationism-promoting, polar bear-hating, global warming doubting, Federal earmarks addict and lining her up to become President of the United States is truly a breathtakingly risky thing to do.

Instead, I want to compare McCain’s left-field choice of Palin with Obama’s choice of Joe Biden. Biden is everything that Palin is not: a known quantity, with years if not decades of sold experience in national foreign policy and Federal operations in general. An old hand who is a known quantity and will give dependable, predictable service in whatever capacity he is called upon. The choice of Biden is boring as hell, and a great dissapointment to some on the left.

And that gets me to my real topic, my new epiphany about Obama. Despite all of the near-messianic excitement that Obama generates among some of his supporters, Obama’s approach to getting things done is very straightforward and cautious, even plodding. His media image is Joe Namath, but Obama’s actual strategy is almost pure Chuck Knox. Identify the problem, and then attack that problem head on, and don’t waste time trying to come up with trick plays or fancy maneuvers.

I first got an inkling of this from reading Obama’s energy and tax policies. His energy policy, while demonstrating the seriousness of his intention to bring global warming under control, is nowhere near as sexy or exciting as Al Gore’s call to get all of our electricity from renewable energy in ten years. Gore’s call for a moonshot effort appeals powerfully to the imagination. By way of contrast, Obama’s emphasis on conservation and auctioning of carbon pollution credits seems, and is, really boring. Obama’s advocacy of clean coal technology and corn ethanol, and even nuclear power, puts him well to the right of much of the environmental movement.

But these policies represent a straight-ahead approach to the problems which he has defined. Obama is clearly serious about increasing our energy independence from the Middle East, and about getting global warming under control. If you want to reduce our reliance on foreign oil ASAP, then you can’t just rule out major domestic sources of energy like coal and ethanol at the same time. So Obama doesn’t rule them out. Instead his program tries to find ways to eliminate the problems of coal and ethanol, so that we can use them as substitutes for foreign oil.

Obama is also serious about combating global warming. But his approach, the 100% carbon auction, is nowhere near as flashy as Schwarzenegger’s “1,000,000 solar roofs” campaign, or “Picken’s Plan” for wind power and natural gas, or even McCain’s call for 45 new nuclear power plants. Obama’s policy is the plain vanilla, mainstream economics, right up the middle approach: the underlying problem is that the current market price of oil doesn’t include the cost of the disastrous environmental damgae it is inflicting (AKA global warming). So you make sure that the market price for oil does include that cost. More specifically,  you use an auction to limit the amount of carbon pollution to our best estimate of what is necessary to slow global warming to acceptable levels. Let the competitive bidding for those carbon permits set the price of carbon pollution, thereby making carbon pollution more expensive. Once you’ve made carbon pollution more expensive, then the free market will do the rest, given a little extra push from renewable energy tax credits and subsidized scientific research.

Did I put you to sleep when I described Obama’s program? I might have, because it doesn’t have any catchy slogan. You can’t slap pretty pictures of windmills and solar panels on it, because Obama isn’t committed to any particular energy source here. Clean coal might well turn out to be the direction that we turn to, if the clean coal research turns out right. Obama’s plan isn’t based on some particular, flashy technology. Obama intends to let the scientists tell us how much carbon pollution we can stand, and then let the businessmen bid against each other to figure out how expensive that will be and thereby create incentives to move to cleaner sources of energy. Use the money raised from the auctions to help the economy through the transition period. Plodding straight forward.

That’s Obama. No matter how flashy his image is, Obama would much rather play a ground game than risk some hail Mary pass. Like I said, he’s Chuck Knox disguised as Joe Namath.

Look at his tax policy. Obama, looking at the data for the last twenty years, sees that taxes on the rich have gotten steadily smaller, and that the share of American wealth that is concentrated at the top has gotten steadily larger, while working and middle-class Americans have seen their financial condition stagnate and then get worse. So Obama proposes to just reverse that. His policy calls for increasing taxes on the rich while cutting them for the poor and middle-class. The rich will pay a larger share of the cost of government, while the poor and middle-class will pay less. If, as in Obama’s view, the Reagan-Bush-Bush strategy of cutting taxes for the rich has failed, then you take corrective action and slant the tax burden back towards the other way. But not back too much; the Pew Center analysis reports that Obama’s proposed taxes on the rich are far short of taking back all the gains they’ve made over the last twenty years. Again, nothing radical. No crusade to smash the rich. But since favoring the rich with tax breaks hasn’t worked out, Obama proposes to stop favoring them with tax breaks. Straight down the middle of the road. Just face the problem head on and take the simplest, shortest road to fixing it.

Can simple, head on policies really work to solve our problems? Well, look at Obama’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. He faced a situation where Hillary Clinton had tons of name recognition and popular support, had locked up most of the traditional Democratic big donors, built her strategy around massive television advertising in the primary states, and was trying to present herself as a very solid, non-nonsense, tough leader who could take charge of the War on Terror. Obama just looked at the problem and then attacked it directly. He saw that the Clinton campaign had decided to ignore the caucus states, so he took that opportunity to pick them up for cheap. Clinton had the big donors, so Obama built an Internet operation to appeal to small donors. Clinton tried to present herself as being a tough, no-nonsense war leader, so Obama’s campaign emphasized ideals, charisma and the need to end the war. Clinton based her big-money campaign on television, so Obama built his campaign around putting activists on the ground. At all points, Obama looked at what his problem was and then attacked that problem head on. And in what might be the most amazing political upsets of my lifetime, he beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

As any former fan of Chuck Knox fan knows, facing your problems head on doesn’t guarantee that you will win. But the Chuck Knox approach does guarantee that you won’t lose for lack of trying, or by outsmarting yourself trying to be too clever. The other side better be prepared for a real straightup fight, because you are and you’re coming.

I actually find this idea of Obama-the-plodder to be very comforting. Because I’m too old to believe in magic bullets, or in Superman. I’m too old to think that we can avoid facing our problems head on. And I’m definitely too old to put up with any nonsense like putting the country at risk of having President Sarah Palin.

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