Obama and the Balance of Risks


As someone who has caught the Obama bug, I think it’s important at this point to step back from the mania for a second, and engage in some sober second thoughts. While we all know about Obama’s impressive virtues, which I spent some time listing a few days ago, what would the bill of particulars against him look like? Here’s what I came up with.

a) Lack of experience. Obama is clearly a very quick study, but are there things that sheer smarts can’t compensate for? I can think of a few possibilities. First, there’s a certain maturity that comes from having held power for a while, and particularly from suffering failure and learning to deal with it. Second, experience often gives one a stock of first-hand cases through which to evaluate new situations. This can be partially compensated for by the study of history, but only partially, and there isn’t all that much evidence that I know of that Obama has really devoted himself to historical study of policymakers, especially executives. Third, experience can (but doesn’t always) sensitize politicians to their own weaknesses in a way that can only happen when you’re using live ammunition. Forth (and this may be considered a positive or a negative), experience tends to lower expectations, by familiarizing politicians with all the various ways that things can go wrong, and with the predictability of failure.

b) Non-Wonkery. After eight years of an anti-analytical president, someone with no respect for any of the tools or disciplines by which we have learned to temper our political enthusiasms, through carefully predicting the consequences of different measures, we desperately need someone in the White House with at least something of the wonk’s mindset. This does not seem to be Obama’s cast of mind. I don’t doubt that he’d have more good policy analysts around his White House than Bush has, and that he’d listen to them more intently, but that’s not the same thing as having the skeptical, wonk’s instincts deep in one’s bones. Optimism and “hope” are fine and good as tools for mobilizing people, but temperamental pessimism and skepticism, which help one see around corners, are necessary when evaluating measures to advance one’s goals. I’d be interested in any evidence that he has this very important habit of mind.

c) No Executive Background. In addition, a well-trained candidate for president should have some sophistication and experience with organizational behavior, with knowing what one can and cannot expect complex organizations like the federal government to actually do, and how they can be induced to change. Obama’s life has been spent on local organizing, in the law, and in legislatures, but not in complex bureaucracies (public or private), and his academic training is in law, not business or public policy. Having taught at a very good law school, I know that they do a number of things very well, but getting students to think about the behavior of bureaucracies is not one of them. Obama has been great at leading a lightly-entrenched, highly networked campaign structure. But my fear is that Obama will expect more from the sprawling, highly entrenched federal government than it can deliver, at least without the savvy at administrative leadership that comes from having been around a wide range of bureaucracies over a long period of time.

d) What Does He Actually Believe? As I noted a couple of days ago, Obama has a great deal of crossover ideological appeal, based primarily on style and mood rather than policy substance. By standard measures, Obama is on the most left-hand side of the respectable political distribution (things like ADA and ACU scores). Now, these may not be great predictors of his behavior in office. In fact, my gut tells me that he’s not highly committed to Democratic government producerist interests, and that he has a considerable libertarian streak. But there’s just no way to know, and it’s not quite clear that he even really knows, since he hasn’t had to figure out what his abstract positions mean when faced with lots of zero-sum choices between alternative courses of action (see above on experience). A considerable part of Obamania syndrome (of which I am a victim) is a tendency to project our own beliefs onto the guy. So, more moderate Democrats and even conservatives extrapolate from the fact that he is respectful toward their views, that he is sympathetic to them. Which may be true, but probably isn’t. So the fact is, that anyone who says that they think that Obama will be more open to their position than some alternative candidate is probably just engaging in wishful thinking.

I could go on longer along these lines, but I think my point is made. Obama is an incredibly skilled politician. He could be a tonic for what ails the body politic, and as Andrew Sullivan argued, a break from the exhausted politics of the last quarter-century. But he might not be. Obama, like even the greatest politicians, is an amalgam of vices and virtues, and in our enthusiasm for him, we should avoid fitting him for a saint’s garments. Bill Clinton, for all of his mixed motives in the matter, is right when he says that Obama is a risk. You can talk all you want about “the risks of doing the same old thing,” but that’s just rhetorical jive. There are real, concrete risks with Obama, that even his supporters (at least those of us who are paid to teach and research, as opposed to sell politicians) should be honest and open about. We think that the probabilities of good in his case outweigh those of ill, as compared to the alternatives. Saying that is as much as anyone who is intellectually honest should ever be asked to admit about any political candidate. Beyond that one gets into a cult of personality, and that’s where I get off the bus.

Update Mark responds.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.