Obama’s toughness

Too naive to take on the Republicans? I don’t think so.

Paul Krugman thinks Barack Obama is “naive” (Gee, where have we heard that word before? Is Krugman still writing his own stuff, or is he just mailing in talking points from Mark Penn?) for thinking that the drug companies and health insurers will play a role in shaping a new national health policy. I would have thought that anyone who thought otherwise was showing a dangerous distance from consensus reality.

But Krugman’s real point seems to be that Obama isn’t nasty enough to be President: that his agenda of inclusiveness (including even &#8212 horrors! &#8212 drug companies in the national community) means giving up on serious change. That strikes me as a remarkably un-subtle view for someone of Krugman’s sophistication, and can only attribute the error to the fact that Krugman is as committed to his candidate as I am to mine.

To my eye, Obama is super-slick, and part of his slickness is not looking slick: looking, indeed, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. It’s the Reagan trick. To interpret that technique as weakness is a foolish mistake.

If you’re going to provoke a fight and want the onlookers on your side, you have to make sure that the other side looks like the aggressor. In undoing the damage of the past eight years, Obama is going to need a fairly free hand to wield the powers of the executive. He can’t get that by looking like a power-hungry, revenge-driven would-be tyrant.

By emphasizing unity over conflict, for example, Obama might be able to get a Truth and Reconciliation Commission: or, to put that in English, he might be able to acquire the power, through his nominees on such a commission, to purge the Executive Branch of Bushoids. Can you imagine Hillary getting away with that?

Somehow I doubt that either Krugman or I really have the chops to judge the toughness of a guy who cut his political teeth on the Southside of Chicago. But Obama looks to me like a skilled counter-puncher. His crack at Hillary in the last debate &#8212which must have been impromptu, since he might have anticipated the question but not her intervention&#8212 suggests to me he knows how to fight back effectively without looking mean.

You have to love the way the Clintonites are screaming that Obama is unfairly getting away with saying bad things about their candidate while the press criticizes her as “negative” and, at the very same time, warning that he’s not tough enough to take on the Republicans. No one seems to notice the contradiction. A very sharp knife doesn’t hurt as much going in, but it does just as much damage.

And if you doubt Obama knows how to use the dog whistle, check this out:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama accused the Bush administration on Tuesday of pursuing a policy of “social Darwinism” that leaves every man and woman struggling.

To you and me, dear reader, “Social Darwinism” suggests Herbert Spencer and letting the poor starve. But to lots of the Republican base, it suggests … Darwinism. They really, really don’t want to vote for a “Darwinist.” See how it works?

No, this is definitely a guy I wouldn’t want confront up a dark alley. He won’t get desperate and start swinging wildly, as the Clinton campaign now seems to be doing, but he knows how to make his punches tell.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com