Obama's Non-Ideology In a Populist Age

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George Packer reflects on Obama's first year:

[T]he whole drift of political currentsespecially in the wake of last night’s Massachusetts resultis away from Obama’s agenda, and toward a kind of populism that, like a wild fire, can shift directions with any light wind that blows through and quickly burn up large tracts of land (it just immolated Martha Coakley). This is a politics that Obama has never been comfortable with. His preferred approach, as we’ve learned this past year, is to bring together his relatively non-ideological advisers, let each one argue a point of view, then make a decision on the rational basis of evidence and expertise, and explain it to the public in a detailed, almost anti-inspirational manner. Thus the bank plan, the Afghanistan policy, the “jobs summit,” etc. A Democratic politician recently told me that the best way to get Obama to do what you want is to tell him that it’s the unpopular, difficult, but responsible thing.

If Obama has any ideology, it’s this process. It is not an approach that’s easily adapted to leading and guiding the volatile hearts and minds of a beleaguered and cynical public. My guess is that it’s driven his political advisers around the bend many times.

The whole post is worth a read. It helps illuminate the divide between Obama's Reaganite campaign and George H W Bush-like administration. The trouble is: I think we need exactly this kind of good faith engagement with serious and complicated problems right now. And looking back, the first Bush administration looks substantively better and better. The question is whether this kind of small-c conservative good-governance can survive in a climate where the mood is populist, the economy is wrecked, the opposition is as angry as it is incoherent, and the Democratic base is in a mood for revolution.

Bush had no option. But Obama does. He can do the "vision thing". He needs to find a way to harness it to the pragmatic tasks in front of him. Never easy. But we will now see what he is made of.

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