Obama: Conservative Temperament, Liberal Policies

A reader writes:

Your comments on the conservative soul have been a catalyst for some of my own thinking about why Obama is so appealing to people of my own generation (I'm 29). I think that one reason (among many) is that Obama, like so many of us, is conservative by temperament, but liberal in his particular positions.

As you know, 'liberalism' and 'conservatism' can mean many things. They can describe complex political philosophies or they can be a grab-bag of particular political positions. But they can also describe the overall attitude with which people approach political problems: very broadly, 'liberalism' says, "I have a grand plan to make things better," and 'conservatism' says, "Be careful not to make things worse instead." In this sense, 'liberalism' means thinking in terms of grand plans, great movements, and sweeping revolutions, while 'conservatism' means skepticism about such plans, and a preference for incremental, pragmatic change.

Now, I get the sense from boomers across the ideological spectrum, that their approach to political questions is generally framed in grand ideological terms (are you 'for life' or 'for choice'? are you 'for peace' or 'for defending America'?). And because Boomers have been dominating our political discourse for while now, they have defined the contours of debate on most issues in strongly ideological terms. But in many cases, the facts have moved on, while the debate has remained frozen.

For example, on the invasion of Iraq, I still hear many Boomers talk about Peace v. War (as if you either supported one or the other). But I hear almost no younger people talking that way. We don't really approach the question from a grand ideological point of view ('is war good or bad?') but from a more conservative, pragmatic point of view ('is this war going to work, or not?'). Obama spoke for us when he said, very early on, that he didn't oppose all war, but he did oppose "a dumb war". Obama was moving the debate into a new era, in which people who support some wars don't have to support all wars, and people who oppose some wars don't have to oppose all wars.

Similarly, on some social and economic issues, people in my generation often tend to take liberal positions. But we don't arrive at them from a 'liberal' approach to the questions. We don't support welfare, gun control laws, limits on carbon emissions and so on because we think we can build the Great Society or a perfect world, but because pragmatically, these policies seem like the best solutions to particular problems. Also, on some issues, we grew up wth 'liberal' policies already in place, and the conservative impulse is not to try and change things too quickly. In his less ideological, more 'conservative' approach to problems, and his tendency to  find 'liberal' solutions to many (though not all) of them, Obama is very appealing to people from my generation. But I think this also helps explain why he has had trouble with Boomers. He doesn't grandstand, and his rhetoric often doesn't fit the categories that Boomers are accustomed to hearing and thinking in. I've been amazed to hear some Boomers (esp. the Krugman type) claim that Obama 'doesn't take a stand'. He does, but he does it with new language and new paradigms, and they don't recognize it. Younger people do, and for us, Obama's a breath of fresh air in a political room that was getting very stale, from constantly refighting old battles.