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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 17:49 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Obama, so far

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19 April 2009 23:07

John Hannoush writes about my interview with Reihan Salam:

I’m enjoying your posts from America. On this particular post, I was wondering if you were going to talk about some other conservatives. For example, do you put Rush Limbaugh in the 'cartoonish' camp?  There are also the Powerline crew. It was interesting to hear Reihan – I got the impression he was proposing the sort of thing John Howard was generally doing (conservative social democracy, as Andrew Norton called it).

Recognising that parties in power usually assume they don’t have to worry about philosophy or direction (because they are in power), I wonder if you have any observations on thinking in the Democrats. Is there a coherent Obamaism dominating the party yet or are the real choices still to come?

Gee, thanks John. It's not enough that I post photos and make superficial observations about American life? You want analysis too?

OK, but let me dispense with the first part quickly, since I know very little of Rush Limbaugh's work and never read Powerline, so I'll withold judgment on both. Your suspicion about Reihan is correct — in conversation he did express admiration for John Howard, particularly regarding Howard's ability to bring working-class voters ('the battlers') into the Coalition's orbit. Reihan has a similar ambition for the Republican Party, through what he and his co-author Ross Douthat (newly hired by the New York Times for their op-ed page) call Sam's Club Republicanism.

Your second paragraph is more difficult, and is a subject I've been wrestling with for some weeks. I heard it said in Washington that it is too early to define Obamaism since Obama has yet to make any really difficult decisions, but that surely overlooks the massive challenge of the financial crisis, which has dominated Obama's term thus far. I'm not qualified to assess the merits of his decisions on that front, but would observe that his style has been pragmatic and prudential. Obama is not an ideologue, and that in itself is encouraging.

In terms of the foreign policy modesty I called for before the election, I am encouraged by the fact that Obama is getting out of Iraq and defining the Afghanistan mission in the narrowest terms — as a means to prevent another al Qaeda attack on the US. That said, if this is a sincere statement of his Administration's intent, then inserting 22,000 more troops into the country and embarking on a potentially decade-long nation bulding effort is an extremely inefficient way to go about it and in fact rather contrary to the spirit of the modesty agenda I endorsed.

I also think Obama plays a very long game. My suspicion (and that's all it is) is that Obama is thinking about how his agenda can be implemented over an eight-year period. He doesn't mind giving his opponents a few victories in between, and he occasionally even hands them propoganda opportunities on a platter.

Two caveats:

  1. My superficial understanding of Obama's budget is that his revenue projections depend largely on the Congress passing a carbon cap-and-trade system, which seems unlikely — his entire agenda could unwind if he cannot bring the deficit under control in the second half of his term.
  2. Much of the favourable commentary on Obama is coloured by a personal attraction — he's the kind of man that those who make up the commentator class would like to know (I do not exclude myself from this judgment). But as a friend put it to me yesterday, many people went through the same love affair with Tony Blair.

I don't agree, by the way, that governing parties lose interest in philosophy or direction, and I don't think the historical record of any major democracy can support that judgment.

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