February 27, 2008

Obama as Wonk

As Obama edges closer to the presidency, perhaps it's time to step aside from all the flash and glitter of the Democratic primary horse race and take a peek under the hood - how does Obama actually want to run this country?

Obama Policy Papers

Some policy papers:

In his Blueprint for Change, Obama runs through fifteen policy areas, from reforming governance, to economic policy, foreign policy, and education. It is interesting to see not only his goals, but the way he chooses to present them to the public. Even when talking about boring Social Security taxes, he leads with a message of hope: he lays out the big "why?" with a memorable quote from a speech. He follows with a short bullet list of specific policy goals he wants to achieve. Then finally, for every section he details then specific legislation he has supported and web links to papers with the wonky details. It is all very slick. But it is also clear, motivational, actionable and effective. The approach itself hints at the themes that would drive an Obama administration.

Renewing American Leadership, a foreign policy paper written by Obama for Foreign Affairs last year, is a much wonkier enumeration of foreign policy prescriptions on Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, and India; policy on military ground force strength, the nuclear comprehensive test ban treaty, NATO and the UN, and global climate policy. Yet still, in an interesting mirror of his presidential campaign, Obama writes this about terrorists: "Our beliefs rest on hope; the extremists' rest on fear." And after advocating a bold increase in foreign assistance he echoes Roosevelt's advice to spread good rather than only combating evil: "We Americans are not destroyers; we are builders."

The Audacity of Data - in the New Republic, Noam Scheiber analyzes some of Obama's policy advisers and proposes that Obama's "surprisingly non-ideological" policy approach will have a bottom-up style rather than a (Bill) Clintonian big-think top-down style. Scheiber proposes that an Obama administration is likely to be full of practical little behavioralist innovations such as having the IRS send out tax forms that are already filled in, or having employees enrolled in their 401K by default.

What Will Define an Obama Administration?

I agree the Obama is decidedly non-ideological, but I'm not sure that Scheiber's "bottom-up" assessment is the right way to understand Obama. Scheiber himself points out that we should expect Obama to not just do the little things, but break with larger established traditions and conventions, such as changing the world's nuclear status quo (for example Obama wants to work towards elimination of nuclear weapons globally, long an untouchable issue for Democrats who wish to avoid appearing too dovish).

I think Obama does have an overarching top-down approach, but the difference is that this approach is a very new 21st century one, that departs from traditional policy prescriptions. While the 20th century was all about economic power: industrial might, flows of capital and energy, Obama's new calculations have to do with the power of information.

Obama seems to recognize that so many of the world's great problems are fundamentally battles of the human mind and spirit.

Terrorists blow themselves up because they live in world of fear and despair; Washington grows corrupt because cynical voters have given up on their government; immigrants suffer and the poor grow poorer because of a failure to understand their plight as our own. The 20th century weapons in these wars were military and economic, but Obama brings a very 21st century approach to bear.

An Obama administration would be all about information: the power of the message, the dangers of fear, the virtue of transparency, and the fundamental importance of understanding our fellow human beings.

Posted by David at February 27, 2008 05:19 AM
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