Obama’s trick

It’s called “respect.” A little goes a long way.

Matt Yglesias is puzzled, twice.

He can’t understand why what seems to him like Barack Obama’s transparent trick of using Kumbya rhetoric to mask what are mostly uncompromisingly progressive policy stances bothers other progressives and fools conservatives. Matt, and Jason Zengerle, to whom he links, both point to an astonishingly laudatory Steven Hayes profile of Obama from the Weekly Standard.

Hayes points out that Obama routinely acknowledges conservative concerns in the process of working his way around to liberal positions. For example, on gun control, Obama the Con. Law prof says there’s an individual Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, but then turns to the question of how that right needs to be limited in the interests of public safety. Hayes calls this “the Obama trick.” Zengerle can’t figure it out: “The amazing thing is that Hayes recognizes this as a trick &#8212 and he still falls for it!”

But that analysis assumes that all Hayes, or other conservatives, care about or ought to care about is the policy conclusion a candidate for President reaches, rather than how he reaches it. But many people want to be listened to as much as they want to be agreed with. Those people will be, if not delighted, at least satisfied, If a candidate will say clearly that he understands their concerns and acknowledges the legitimacy of those concerns, even in reaching an answer they don’t like. What they don’t want is to be on the losing end of the culture war, ruled by people who have contempt for them and for the things they value.

What Obama offers them, simply, is respect, and the only “trick” is his knack for making that respect seem genuine. Maybe I’m being fooled along with everyone else, but I think it probably is genuine: Obama seems to me to have both the philosophical open-mindedness and the Christian charity to encounter difference without feeling animus.

As to Matt’s first puzzle &#8212 why this transparent trick, which disarms opposition without sacrificing principle, should be offensive to some progressives &#8212 the obvious answer is that some people, n both sides of the aisle would rather triumph over their enemies than achieve their policy goals.

Footnote Yes, I’m aware that not all actual Christians are charitable. Nor, for that matter, are all actual philsophers open-minded. Christianity and philosophy are concrete activities and institutions, and as such necessarily imperfect, but they are also ideals: a Christian ought to be charitable (that is, generous of spirit) and a philosopher ought to be open-minded.

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