The importance of big ideas

One of the things that impressed me about Obama when I met him in 2006 was his nearly palpable intellect. In a situation like that interview, a five-minute session with a little blogger in Kansas, wedged between a private chat with Governor Sebelius and an address to the state’s Democratic powerbrokers, it’d be easy for him to have gone on autopilot, giving canned answers with his mind elsewhere. Nonetheless, I got the genuine feeling of the gears whizzing, working through my questions, turning them around in his head and genuinely engaging me and them as he answered.

It’s possible that that was a politician’s art, but I don’t think so.

That intellect that I sensed matters, and it isn’t something that will show in the absurd debates that our political system thrives on. A smart answer to the tough issues facing the world takes more than 30 or even 60 seconds. As the pace of the campaign becomes increasingly frenetic in the lead-up to the 22 state primaries and caucuses of February 5, that aspect of his personality bears some careful examination, moreso than parsing the Kennedy clan’s endorsements (or even Governor Sebelius’) or whether the Florida and Michigan delegations will be allowed to vote in the Democratic Convention.

It’s a trait which is likely to confound not only people seeking red meat, but those seeking a “dog-whistle.” Red meat is a way of showing that you stand in a given ideological camp and won’t deviate. A “dog whistle,” like Reagan’s famous appeal to “state’s rights” in Philadelphia, MS, is a way of signaling that sort of blind allegiance in a way detectable only by other adherents to that ideology.

I’m inclined to think that the last 8 years show the dangers of such unthinking ideological allegiance, the dangers of a President who, having hitched his wagon to a team, refuses to uncouple from them even as they lead him and the nation off a cliff. I don’t want an ideologue in the White House, and I don’t want someone who prefers symbols to substance.

With Obama, what we get is substance. You can see that commitment even in small things. Asked about his favorite TV show, he named The Wire. Now, no doubt that it’s the best show on TV (and that goes for season 5, despite its rocky start). It’s well-written, smart, thoughtful, and substantive. It tackles tough questions, and it doesn’t stop at easy answers, or at the answers that can be offered in an hour-long episode or even a 13 episode season. That’s the show’s genius, and it is, in a sense, unexceptional that he would list it as his favorite show. It’s almost as if he had said “Highway 61 Revisited,” or perhaps even “Desolation Row,” was his favorite Dylan song. Except that The Wire is also a show which actively argues in favor of drug legalization, leaves you wondering if unions are entitled to smuggle drugs and prostitutes through customs if the profits go to protect blue collar jobs, and shines a brutal light on the police, the courts, the schools and the politicians. The show, in short, exudes Keatsian negative capability “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”). A lesser candidate might have named a show without all that honest complexity, in favor of other excellent shows with rabid followings, like House or Firefly. Obama didn’t and his choice symbolizes something important about him. He’s comfortable with complexity.

I was reminded of that by a links I’ve kept open in Firefox for months (let us all praise the ability to restore sessions), the first being this post by slacktivist. Asked by David Brooks what he takes away from his reading of Reinhold Neibuhr, Obama answered:

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Let us pause, as slacktivist does, to marvel that “Here is a man who speaks off the cuff in complete sentences and complete paragraphs. The contrast with our current president couldn’t be more stark.” Indeed, the contrast with much of the field of candidates couldn’t be more stark. Obama is someone you could have a conversation with, and that discussion would be grounded not only in his experience living around the world and around the country, editing the Harvard Law Review and organizing Chicago’s South Side, but also grounded in the great thinkers and great writers. There’s something to be said for that.

There’s something, also, to be said for his treatment of ideas. The problem of evil is not a new one, and not one likely to go away. The current administration’s simple-minded branding of people as “evil-doers,” and shocking incapability to assemble a better response to the attacks of September 11 than the Patriot Act and a first anniversary reading of the Gettysburg Address, show one end of the spectrum – a contrived dualism, in which We are perfect and They are wrong about everything. If al Qaeda wants us out of Iraq, we need to stay longer; if they don’t eat pork, trichinosis is our patriotic duty.

Obama’s reaction to this question is to acknowledge the complexity with humility and modesty, to strive for the best, acknowledging our own weaknesses. This is as far from Bush’s approach as it is from surrender (“cynicism and inaction”). It is a trait that was evident in our discussion a couple years ago, especially in his closing paragraph (and so few people speak off-the-cuff in such clear paragraphs):

Jobs at a living wage, health care for all people, educational opportunity for all people, environmental sustainability, foreign policy that is smart and not just belligerent. And if those values are important to whoever’s running, people need to be flexible in terms of recognizing that there may more than one way of doing things. Single payer healthcare may not be the only way to provide healthcare to everybody and we should be agnostic, we should be open minded about what strategies or approaches we get to deliver those issues.

I think he’s right about that flexibility. It acknowledges complexity, that there are constraints and unforseen events, and that we can often achieve our goals in many ways. It reflects the wisdom to separate what we cannot change from what we can, and the serenity to accept the former. These properties, combined with the courage to change what we can, are the three parts of Niebuhr’s famous prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” That, I think is a wise strategy in politics, and is the foundation of much of Obama’s approach.

It reflects his willingness to tell the auto industry that their current practices are unsustainable, and to pair it with an offer to help them reform. It reflects his willingness to open talks with Iran and other hostile nations. Those talks may not succeed, but it is surely worth finding out before excluding the option.

And we see it in his approach to health care. As he mentioned two years ago, his approach is to hold out for basic principles, and work with people to find a solution which can actually pass into law. Single payer, he seems to acknowledge, is the optimal solution, but it seems also to fall into the category of “things I cannot change.” That doesn’t mean universal healthcare is unachievable, though.

As Robert Reich pointed out in The American Prospect, Obama has been clear about his plan’s flexibility. The major differences among the Democratic candidates are over whether to mandate that people must sign up for insurance. On that, Reich writes:

Who’s left [after other measures to reduce the cost of insurance and otherwise lower barriers to entry]? Only around 3 percent of the population. So the question they’re really battling over is whether it’s better to require this 3 percent to buy insurance, or lure them into buying it with low rates and subsidies.

The answer depends on who’s in this 3 percent. Mrs. Clinton thinks they’re mostly younger and healthier than the general population so they should be required to buy health insurance. That way, they’ll bring costs down for everyone else because their payments will subsidize the others.

Mr. Obama thinks a lot of them are people who won’t be able to afford even the subsidized premiums, so they’d either ignore a mandate or wouldn’t be able to pay for it. He says if his plan gets 97 percent coverage without a mandate and he finds that the remaining 3 percent are mostly young and healthy, he’ll go along with a mandate. [emphasis added]

Who’s correct? It’s hard to know. So far, the Massachusetts experiment suggests Mr. Obama. Massachusetts is the only state to require that every resident purchase health insurance. The penalty for failing to do so could reach $4,000 next year, but the state has already exempted almost 20 percent of its current uninsured from the requirement. Massachusetts is concerned they can’t afford a policy, even with subsidies similar to those in all the Democratic plans. So far, about 50 percent of Massachusetts’s uninsured have complied with the mandate.

Paul Krugman has made a point of arguing that a mandate is necessary to hold insurance costs down, while Robert Kuttner just posted an analysis of the Massachusetts mandate experience which tends to back Reich and Obama’s assessment.

Part of the brilliance of FDR’s response to the Depression was that he was willing to experiment, and to revise his plans as they went along. If a program wasn’t working, he’d kill it and try a new one. He’d start programs which seemed like they might work against one another, and stop whichever one didn’t work. That willingness to think about the world, acknowledge its complexity, and adjust your plans in response to events is admirable and vital. We saw it during this campaign, in his willingness to rethink his energy plan when people pointed out that the supposedly low-carbon coal plans he was backing simply don’t live up to the hype. Where coal had a significant part in the plan he initially released, he has since revised it to say that coal would only be a factor if those technologies could be shown to work.

We’ve gone 8 years with a President who lacks any willingness to bend to empirical reality, preceded by eight years of a President unwilling to stand by his principles long enough to get any empirical data. Hillary’s brief and abortive foray into health policy fit the latter mold to a T. She lacked the political skill to force her plan through, and the political will to put forward a plan that would actually garner any support from anyone, and it’s far from clear that she’s learned the lessons from that failure. Her failures of leadership on Iraq and Iran have also fit that mold, and in ways that verge far too near to the current President’s approach.

Obama would be a different sort of President. He understands that it isn’t enough to have ideas, they have to be good ideas (that was his point about Reagan). And he knows that it isn’t enough to have a 30 second rebuttal to a 60 second soundbite in response to an entirely predictable question. The problems that get onto a President’s desk are the ones you need to think about, and to hear different sides, and navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis. As Obama put it in an interview about foreign policy:

I think it is important for an administration to have strong, robust debates as long as everybody is on the same team. Obviously, once I, as president, make those decisions, you don’t want them being subverted because of ideological differences. But I think having a robust debate [is good, since] all of us have certain biases. And this is one area where you want to get it right.

It takes a certain sort of intellect to handle those debates and to emerge with a policy which is not a tepid middle ground. And while those sorts of decision-making skills will be hard to test between now and February 5, that is what should matter then, and again in November, since it is all that will matter come next January, when our next President is sworn in. I trust Obama to make those choices, and I truly think you should, too.


  1. #1 Eric Juve
    January 30, 2008

    This is the best description of Obama I have read. Thank you for writing it.

  2. #2 Spyder
    January 30, 2008

    Wow! Something I understand on your blog. LOL I’m not a science kind of person. I would be happy with Hillary. But I think she would unify the Republicans & we would lose. I do like Obama. And I’m planning on voting for him. I do hope he pulls Richardson in somehow.

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