The argument to mercilessly demolish before 2009:
If history is any guide, the decisions that a President-Elect Obama makes over the next few months will shape his administration. By the end of February, he will have to define his top domestic priorities, submit a budget, and begin the difficult process of unwinding America’s combat presence in Iraq. The good news is that the terms of his victory likely will have left him some room to maneuver. The not-so-good news is that expectations are sky-high and that some of his supporters will press him to throw caution to the wind and emulate FDR’s first 100 days, or LBJ’s feverish legislative pace in 1965 and 1966. This is a temptation Obama would do well to resist. Despite today’s crisis environment, there are economic and political limits to government activism that the president-elect will ignore at his peril.
In short, 2009 is not 1965, when fully 70 percent of the people trusted the federal government. To govern effectively, the new administration cannot presuppose public confidence. It must earn it back, deliberately and stepby step.
It occurs to me that my last few posts have been working up to this. Let’s recount what’s wrong with the above argument. The most basic ‘fallacy’ — or I should say fallacy for us, perhaps not for Galston himself — is one of perspective: it assumes the position of observer and (hopeful) adviser to power, not its true source. In the likely event of Obama’s election, however, his supporters can’t afford to adopt the same perspective. If we’re going to take popular politics seriously, including (and hopefully surpassing) the version Obama’s campaign rhetoric and strategy base themselves on, the starting point of any analysis has to be what is needed to solve actual problems, not what is ‘realistic.’ It does no one any good to start from an imagined idea of what Obama is personally going through, or any so-called objective conditions on his actions. He has an advisory staff already, and a well-paid class of pundits to do that for him. ‘Realistic’ analysis, while it may be helpful for explaining future disappointments, can’t serve as the basis for political demands. Which is the most effective way for non-elites to participate in electoral politics — to test the leader’s limits, not attempt to set them in advance.
In this sense, the common left argument that Obama is more of the same mirrors the center-liberal one, that Obama (and America) is ‘really’ center-right. Regardless of what Obama ‘really believes’ or what he policy he will actually take, in a tremendous ideological victory his supporters have already proved that the U.S. is a different country than was previously imagined. If he and his party win, it will be a minor revolution, riding atop the major revolution initiated by the financial, environmental, and military crises, but one ‘with legs,’ whose formal demands are perhaps not so different from those of the real thing. The argument for holding back has to be fought even if it comes from Obama himself. ‘Realism’ is, at this moment, outdated. The political center of the U.S. has moved. Where it will land has yet to be determined.