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Obama’s Agenda & The Difference Between Tactics & Strategy

There is, to say the least, a lot of jumping to conclusions about just which type of President Barack Obama is liable to be, by which I mean whether he’ll govern from the left or the center. This speculation has been principally based on his cabinet appointments, a subject that people may be reading too much into. The initial Bush cabinet contained a number of people who could be described as moderate or center-right, including Colin Powell, Tommy Thompson, Norman Mineta, Christine Todd Whitman, Paul O’Neill and arguably Mitch Daniels and Ann Veneman. Obviously, this was balanced out to some degree by the Rumsfelds and the Ashcrofts, but it is not clear that Bush’s 2001 cabinet was any more right-wing than Obama’s 2009 cabinet is left-wing. Bush ran a very conservative government — but the authority came from the top down.

Most of this discussion, moreover, has dwelt in the realm of tactics, presentation and salesmanship rather than grand strategy. One can “govern from the center” and implement a number of liberal policies — by shifting the Overton Window a couple of panes at a time, and selling classically liberal policies as commonsensical and centrist. (Which, in the case of some major items like health care and clean energy, they already are). Likewise, as David Sirota notes, one can co-opt leftist rhetoric, enthusiasm and mindshare and implement a centrist agenda, as Bill Clinton arguably did.

In the case of Barack Obama, however, I would argue that there is not as much need to worry about tactics. If his campaign was any indication, Obama is not much of an outsourcer — he will dictate the tone of his administration. Moreover, we actually have quite a bit of information about what his longer-term goals are. This morning, I went to Obama’s website and began transcribing essentially all the specific policy proposals that he was willing to commit to publicly — as you will see, there are dozens and dozens of them. I then began classifying these positions on a truncated political spectrum running from liberal/progressive to center-right, further dividing the policies into economics and taxation (green), other domestic policy (yellow) and foreign affairs (blue). Here is what I came up with:

Now, you’re welcome to critique my characterizations of certain policies as ‘progressive’ versus ‘centrist’ (and I’m sure that many of you will), but a couple of key themes emerge:

1. In the realm of domestic policy, there are a surprising number of proposals — mostly buried within the fine print of Obama’s website — that are more or less unapologetically progressive/liberal. These include things such as doubling public spending on science and after-school programs, banning racial profiling, expanding the use of non-traditional courts and detainment facilities for non-violent drug offenders, several different block grant programs targeted at inner cities, expanding AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, and a large array of protections for workers and consumers. While Obama also has a number of programs that have broader, centrist appeal — such as reforming No Child Left Behind or allowing the importation of prescription drugs from abroad — very few are incompatible with the progressive agenda, with just a couple of exceptions like Obama’s advocacy for clean coal and charter schools. Obama’s domestic program is, by and large, progressive and ambitious (probably overambitious).

2. In the realm of economic policy, there are also some explicitly progressive items, such as raising the minimum wage, investing $1 billion in anti-poverty jobs programs, and of course, reversing the Bush tax cut. There is also a heavy overlap, however, with what might be called libertarian paternalism: “smart” policies which incent good behavior through tax credits or choice architecture (a classic example is Obama’s plan to enroll all employees in pension programs by default, until they elect to opt out). Obama’s health care program, given its lack of a mandate, is also arguably an example of libertarian paternalism (although its incentives need to be better designed than in their current conception). A libertarian paternalist framework supplemented with a number of smaller-scale, piecemeal programs that tend more classically toward social welfare (such as heating assistance for lower-income families) would hardly be the worst place for progressives to end up, even if a bit less ideologically pure than the New Deal or the Great Society. One notable exception is free trade, where Obama is not really pretending to be anything other than centrist.

3. Lastly, in the realm of foreign policy, Obama is fairly circumspect, but where he shows his hand, tends fairly explicitly in the direction of the political center. The withdraw of troops from Iraq has been carefully hedged (at least it is now, if it wasn’t during the primaries). Obama advocates national missile defense; he advocates increasing defense spending. Perhaps just as revealing are the things that Obama doesn’t promise — there is no mention, for instance, of amending FISA. It would seem that when national security goals conflict with other ones in the Obama administration, national security goals will usually win.

Still, this can hardly be described as a centrist agenda (even though much of it should have significant appeal to moderates). The appropriate critique, rather, is that not very much of it may be realized, because portions of it would be rather expensive to enact. It seems to me that to implement a material portion of his domestic policy agenda, Obama needs TWO of the following three things to happen:

a. He needs to follow through with his promise to roll back the Bush tax cuts, and/or,
b. He needs to decrease rather than increase Pentagon spending, and/or,
c. He needs the economy to recover more quickly and more robustly than generally anticipated.

The fight over the Bush tax cuts, it seems to me, could be the fight of Obama’s first year in office; there may be a massive intraparty fight at first (should the tax hikes be brought to the table?), followed potentially by an interparty fight. This is one place where partisans on all sides could have a lot of influence.

But in the longer term, the fight over the defense budget, which will probably trade off more or less explicitly with Obama’s domestic policy prerogatives, could be the key flash point between progressives and the administration. In certain ways, an increase in defense spending seems incompatible with Obama’s notion of a smarter, more aerodynamic government, particularly one that is able to restore American soft power in lieu of military spending, and/or is (eventually) able to end the conflict in Iraq. If progressives are looking for strategic rather than tactical (or ideological) fights, that may be the place to start.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.