Along with many others, I’ve remarked before (see, e.g., here, here, here and here) on Obama’s regrettable tendency to use his intellectual dexterity to conceal his own political priorities behind a fog of equivocation. This is yet another respect in which Obama presents a vivid contrast with his immediate predecessor. Bush may have looked like a dim bulb with ill-considered, or even unconsidered, priorities, but you always had a pretty decent idea of what his priorities were. Obama keeps you guessing.
How much does Obama really care about things as important as military success in Afghanistan, a public option in the health insurance market, trying people like KSM in civilian courts, carbon pricing, comprehensive immigration reform, etc.? Your guess is as good as mine. And the mixed signals coming out of his administration sometimes suggest that senior appointees in it are guessing too. Moreover, concealing his priorities isn't just Obama’s modus operandi with respect to matters that are peripheral to his core agenda. Indeed, if anything, the closer a policy proposal gets to the core of his agenda, the less transparent his preferences about crucial aspects of the policy are.
There are two, and only two, possibilities: either Obama has a well-developed set of priorities (which he has decided for one reason or another not to reveal) or he doesn’t. It's worth taking a little time to canvass the most plausible theories pertaining to each possibility. The first two of the three theories that come most readily to my mind are consistent with each other, but each is inconsistent with the third.
Theory I: Obama has well-developed liberal priorities but chooses not to reveal them for tactical purposes: On this view, Obama learned from the failure of HillaryCare early in the Clinton administration not to wear his liberal priorities on his sleeve. Trying to sell a systematic program conceived whole in the executive branch excites avoidable opposition inside and outside a president’s party and gives well-funded special interests a target to shoot at (think Harry and Louise). When you consider that ObamaCare is the law of the land whereas HillaryCare is just another liberal heartbreak, you might conclude that Obama has been playing political chess where Clinton was playing checkers.
Theory II: Obama has well-developed liberal priorities but chooses not to reveal them for strategic purposes: On this view, Obama knows that the electoral mandate he won in 2008 doesn’t encompass his ambitious liberal agenda, but he presses ahead anyway because he has a progressive’s faith that the winds of history are at his back. So he has decided to exploit the ephemeral majority generated by Bush’s unpopularity to create irreversible political facts on the ground. Obama’s relative indifference to policy content of ObamaCare and financial regulation is best explained by his conviction that, even in a center-right country, once the writ of government has been expanded it never contracts. Everything else is just a detail. Things like the public option, carbon-pricing, etc., will come in due course once the dam of public resistance to big government has been breached.
Theory III: Being a political neophyte and a creature of liberal academic culture, Obama doesn’t have the clearly defined priorities we have hitherto expected a president to have. Never having run anything larger than the Harvard Law Review, he has never had to order his priorities well-enough to put scarce political and economic resources efficiently to use. Moreover, ideologically speaking, he’s the creature of an intellectual culture that rewards the appearance of intellectual acumen more than the sound practical judgment that flows from having settled convictions about matters of substance. So he wants to be a transformative liberal president without caring all that much about the content of the transformations. The little Obama’s showing us about his values is all there is to see.