[StBernard] The Obama I (Don't) Know

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Oct 21 20:06:48 EDT 2008

The Obama I (Don't) Know
Richard A. Epstein 10.21.08, 12:01 AM ET

Chicago -
My Obama number is one. I know him through our association at the University
of Chicago Law School and through mutual friends in the neighborhood. We
have had one or two serious substantive discussions, and when I sent him
e-mails from time to time in the early days of his Senate term, he always
answered in a sensible and thoughtful fashion. And yet, for assessing the
course of his likely presidency, I don't know him at all.

It should come as no surprise that the traditionally liberal Hyde Park
community is a veritable hotbed of support for Obama. So my manifest
reluctance on his candidacy raises more than a single eyebrow: Loyalty for
the home team counts.

The odd point is how his many learned and thoughtful supporters couch their
endorsement. Almost without exception, they praise the man, not the program.
Their claim is that Obama has proved himself to be a consummate politician
who understands that the first principle of holding high office is to get
reelected. His natural moderation in tone and demeanor, therefore, translate
into getting advisers who know their substantive areas, and listening to
them before making any rash moves. The dominant trope is that he will be a
pragmatic president who will move in small increments toward the center, not
in bold steps toward the left.

But is it all true? The short answer is that nobody knows. Virtually
everyone who knows him recognizes that he plays his cards close to the vest,
so that you can make your case to him without knowing whether it has
registered. At this point, my fear is that the change in office will not
lead to a change in his liberal voting record, as reinforced by a
hyperactive Democratic platform. My great fear is that a landslide victory
will give him solid majorities in both Houses of Congress, so that no
stalling tactics by Republicans can slow down his legislative victory
procession. At that point his innate pragmatism will line up with his strong
left-of-center beliefs on issues that have thus far been muted during the

Put otherwise, Obama's vague calls for change that "you can believe in" are,
to my thinking, wholly retrograde in their implications. At heart, he is an
unreconstructed New Dealer who can see, and articulate, both sides on every
question--but only as a prelude to championing the old corporatist agenda
with a vengeance.

That program has three key components, which, taken together, can convert a
shaky financial situation into a global depression. The first of these is
his anti-free trade attitude that loomed so large in the primaries. But even
Obama cannot repeal the principle of comparative advantage. Any efforts to
scuttle NAFTA, deny fast-track approval to other agreements, or limit
outsourcing will not be as dramatic as the Smoot-Hawley tariff. But
combined, they would act as a depressant on general economic growth.
Everyone would suffer.

Second, Obama is committed to strengthening unions by his endorsement of the
Employer Free Choice Act, a misnamed statute that forces union recognition
without elections and employment contracts through mandatory arbitration
thereafter. That one-two punch could tie up the very small businesses that
Obama seems determined to help. Tax relief won't work for firms that won't
get formed because a labor fight is not in their initial budget.

And third, he is in favor of progressive individual taxes and high corporate
taxes. It is as though the U.S. does not have to compete for labor and
capital in global markets. My fear is that with his strong egalitarian bent,
he has not internalized the lesson that high rates do not offset declining

Thus, even before we get to the added bells and whistles of the modern
welfare state--windfall profits taxes, ethanol subsidies, health care--an
Obama administration could lock us into a downward spiral by ignoring the
simple fundamentals of sound governance. Boy, does this stalwart libertarian
ever hope that his friends are right and his gloomy prediction is wrong!

Richard Epstein writes a weekly column for Forbes.com. He is a senior fellow
at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor of law at the University of
Chicago, visiting this fall at the New York University School of Law.

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