Saturday, February 5, 2011

Weekend Rerun: One Year of Obama

Now that we're contemplating the first two years of the Obama presidency, I thought it's worth recalling how things looked to me after one year in this 1/22/10 post.  Rereading the post has me asking myself whether Obama's core values are any less inscrutable now than they were then:

One year into the Obama presidency there's a glaring disparity between how much of him we've seen, and how much about him we know. George Packer suggests that there's a connection between Obama's ostentatious rationality and the obscurity of his priorities (my emphasis):
“His preferred approach, as we’ve learned this past year, is to bring together his relatively non-ideological advisers, let each one argue a point of view, then make a decision on the rational basis of evidence and expertise, and explain it to the public in a detailed, almost anti-inspirational manner. Thus the bank plan, the Afghanistan policy, the “jobs summit,” etc. A Democratic politician recently told me that the best way to get Obama to do what you want is to tell him that it’s the unpopular, difficult, but responsible thing.

If Obama has any ideology, it’s this process . . . .

“Part of Obama’s weakness has been this unwillingness or inability to say a few simple things passionately, which would let Americans know that he is on their side. Reagan knew how to do it, which meant that, even when his popularity was sinking at a similar point in his presidency (remember 1982?), the public still knew where he stood, not necessarily on the details of policy, but on a few core principles that he could at least pretend never to sacrifice. This is partly a problem of communication, worsened by a tendency of the White House (as if the campaign never ended) to make Obama’s the face on every issue, so that the more he says, the less people know what he wants.”
To my ear, all of this rings true until you get to the part about the "communication problem." Obama never stops communicating. Can you think of anything Obama has done that really defied your expectations to the point that it made you revise your theory about what his core values are? Has he done anything significant as to which his motives aren't readily decipherable and explicable? Obama may have disappointed you for any number of reasons, but is there any respect in which you are entitled to feel betrayed? If your answers to these questions are as substantially negative as mine, you and Obama probably aren't suffering from failure to communicate. The problem isn't that Obama's speaking unclearly or too infrequently; it's what he has, or chooses, to say.

It's a matter of specificity. Obama tells you incessantly about what he wants in general (health care reform, cap-and-trade, to finish the job in Afghanistan) but almost nothing about how much he wants the elements of his agenda relative to each other. He wanted a stimulus, but deferred to the congressional leadership when it came to what was in it; he wants health care reform, but never weighed in on the issue about how to tradeoff cost reduction against the universality of insurance coverage or said how important it is to have a public option; he's never signaled clearly how committed he is to realizing his military objectives in Afghanistan.

Although he never quite says so, I read Packer as suggesting that there's a tradeoff between rationality and moral clarity in presidential decision-making. If you crave the clarity of Reagan or W, you have to reconcile yourself to major decisions being made by the seat of someone's pants. Conversely, if you want your presidential decisions made "on the rational basis of evidence and expertise," be prepared for a little moral equivocation.

That can't be true. Fetishizing decision-making protocols betrays a lack of self-consciousness. Effective decision processes connect inputs (priorities, information, attitudes to risk and uncertainty, etc.) to outputs in the form of decisions. The better the process, the better the outputs generated from a given set of inputs are likely to be. But garbage in, garbage out. By bringing pertinent facts to light that might otherwise have been ignored, a good decision-process may induce a decision-maker to change his priorities in the course of making a decision as he comes to a better appreciation of his objectives' relative cost. But it can't relieve the decision-maker of the burden of sorting his priorities out before a rational decision is made. Even if they change in the course of the decision, priorities are still inputs.

I prefer to think that Obama's vagueness is a tactic. Because most voters aren't liberals, I presume that he finds it inexpedient to wear his liberal priorities on his sleeve. The alternative--that he really believes that theatrical displays of deliberativeness relieve him of the burden of having well-articulated priorities--is too depressing to contemplate.

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