December 13, 2008 [LINK / comment]

How "moderate" is Obama?

Barack Obama's main objective during the transition is to convey the impression that he is a responsible moderate, not some wild-eyed utopian radical. In this, he is succeeding brilliantly so far. But what about his plans for governing: Will he continue to hew toward the center, or will he "boldly go where no president has gone before"? Five weeks from now, we'll start to find out.

In Friday's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer scrutinizes this puzzle. He argues that Obama is not an ideological centrist, but rather is pragmatic in terms of setting his policy priorities. His only foreign policy objective is to avoid international conflict and maintain global capital flows so that he can focus on his domestic agenda, which, Krauthammer says, is "to effect a domestic transformation as grand and ambitious as Franklin Roosevelt's." Thanks to President Bush's $700 billion financial bailout slush fund and his own big electoral mandate on November 4, Obama now has the means at his disposal to carry out such a vast transformation. If so, it would permanently alter the political landscape in a way that could render the conservative market-based alternative utterly pointless. I dearly hope Krauthammer is wrong.

Some hints of what Obama's elusive agenda of "change" might entail can be found on the campaign Web site The proposed "Social Investment Fund" would "use federal seed money to leverage private sector funding to improve local innovation, test the impact of new ideas and expand successful programs to scale." The Social Entrepreneurship Agency for Nonprofits would be "dedicated to building the capacity and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector." Richard Viguerie warns that the "socialization" of the nonprofit sector in this country might eliminate independent nonprofit organizations that have long been "among the most effective critics of government. Liberals wish to reduce such independence through financing (with strings attached) and regulating nonprofits." Instead, liberal groups like ACORN and Planned Parenthood would get taxpayer subsidies. I'm afraid Viguerie is on to something. If Obama does move ahead to, in effect, politicize philanthropy, it would poison the well of social trust upon which social peace in America depends, and would reduce the flow of voluntary charity to a trickle. In other words, it would be much like the situation in Europe.

Bush gets reflective

As his administration winds down, President Bush is getting more candid about his past mistakes, acknowledging that in an interview two weeks ago with Charlie Gibson of ABC News. (Thanks to Dan for the link.) Bush is clearly proud not to have compromised his principles (free markets?), but lamented his inability to reduce the partisan rancor in Washington. (That may have something to do with the fact that his political advisor Karl Rove deliberated exacerbated partisan acrimony, but perhaps Bush was not aware of this.) This part of the interview was especially illuminating on the way Bush approached big decisions:

Bush said his decision not to prematurely withdraw troops from Iraq was grounded in his values.

"I listened to a lot of voices, but ultimately, I listened to this voice: I'm not going to let your son die in vain," he said. "I believe we can win. I'm going to do what it takes to win in Iraq.

As anyone who has studied military history knows, making strategic decisions on the basis of emotions rather than logic is the surest path to disaster. For example, as World War I dragged on in a bloody stalemate, the refusal by national leaders on both sides to compromise for fear that it would dishonor the soldiers who had already fallen in combat resulted in the needless deaths of millions more. Bush spoke eloquently about the overwhelming burdens of leadership, but he should know that there are times when a commander in chief has to make the agonizing decision to cut the country's losses and move on.