Sunday, January 20, 2008

Reasons for Obama

1. Meta-politics
I think our top priority should be to strengthen democracy: improving the political system to make it more responsive to reason. That means increased transparency in government, ethics reforms to reduce the influence of lobbyists, and modelling intellectual honesty and civic virtue in political debate. On each of these grounds, Obama is the better candidate by far.

2. No More Torture
Here I defer to Katherine's expert judgment:
Neither [Clinton] nor Obama is good enough about accountability for past abuses; I think he probably is good enough going forward, but she isn't.

Update: see also Habeas Lawyers for Obama:
Some politicians are all talk and no action. But we know from first-hand experience that Senator Obama has demonstrated extraordinary leadership on this critical and controversial issue...

3. Iraq
Obviously. Here's what Obama said in 2002:
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

Here's why it matters:
[T]his isn't just about the past, it's about the future. I don't talk about my opposition to the war to say "I told you so." I wish the war had gone differently. But the reason I talk about it is because I truly believe that the judgment, and the conviction, and the accountability that each of us showed on the most important foreign policy decision of our lives is the best indicator you have of how each of us will make those decisions going forward.

How we made that decision, and how we talk about it, is critical to understanding what we would do as President. Will we carefully evaluate the evidence and the consequences of action, or will we skip over the intelligence and scare people with the consequences of inaction? Will we make these decisions based on polls, or based on our principles? Will we have the courage to make the tough choice, or will we just choose the course that makes us look tough?

4. Effective Diplomacy and Consensus-building
From international to local politics, Obama is willing to bring to the table those he disagrees with. And you know what: it works. Over to Mark Schmitt:
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee's mission your way.

This point also comes out vividly in Obama's in-depth Chronicle interview (highly recommended, especially if you want a better understanding of how Obama would go about things as president).

5. Competence
Many people complain that Obama doesn't have Hillary's "experience" in Washington. But anyone who doubts his wonkish credentials should simply take a look at his record:
[W]hile Obama has not proposed his Cosmic Plan for World Peace, he has proposed a lot of interesting legislation on important but undercovered topics. I can't remember another freshman Senator who so routinely pops up when I'm doing research on some non-sexy but important topic, and pops up because he has proposed something genuinely good. Since I think that American politics doesn't do nearly enough to reward people who take a patient, craftsmanlike attitude towards legislation, caring as much about fixing the parts that no one will notice until they go wrong as about the flashy parts, I wanted to say this.

Follow the link for the details. (Then follow all the previous links in this post!)

Overall: Compared to Hillary, Obama is more electable, more likely to be able to effect change once elected, and the changes he proposes are the right ones. Why in the world wouldn't you support him?


  1. Looks like you have a spam commenter, until Richard deletes the above I would suggest that no one be silly enough to click on the links in the comments.

    Other than that I fully agree with you + I've been told that Thomas Pogge has been advising him on health care...

  2. I guess on balance would prefer to see Obama win the Democratic nomination, however

    He sails on a wave of the worst things in politics - the ability to spend hours saying nothing and yet have the audience leave thinking you was great. Like the article in the herald recently. The problem is that flair drowns out substance – and that is already a huge problem for the USA. You link to marks article which seems to highlight the benefits of subverting democracy in this way – benefits indeed. Whenever I see someone like that I think I should look a lot closer because I know hardly anyone else is.

    I think a lot of the benefits you see in Obama's strategy are related to him not being the insider. His organization (and that of McCain) isn't quite the ruthless winning machine that Romney or Hilary has, so it chooses the strategies available to it.

    Regarding Iraq, there is a danger that a more Doveish president will remain in Iraq and just do a miserable job of it. I.e. there may be a 'foolish middle ground' that is even worse than the extremes. I don't know if that would be the case or not for Obama.

    If you want the person who has better knowledge of the facts or a better support structure I doubt that Obama beats Hillary and Bill (here after to be called Billary). And remember THIS.

    Now I know it taken out of context and all the candidates are now pretending that they are willing to exterminate life on earth if it will get al Qaeda, but it isn’t exactly reassuring.

    > Overall: Compared to Hillary, Obama is more electable

    And yet he is probably going to loose the primary… Besides in head to head McCain beats both of them (and I think the polls overestimate Obama), Meanwhile both candidates beat Romney.

    I also predict he will under-perform polls.


  3. Richard, for the most part I am fine with your substantive claims about Obama. I'm hesitant mostly because of his lack of experience, but that's not a reason to think he would be a poor leader, it just leaves me agnostic about whether he would or not.

    However, I can't stand certain terminology that is deployed in discussions about politics. One such term that makes be crazy is "electable" and I notice you place some importance on this suspect feature that good candidates are meant to have. So really, what does "electability" come to, and why should it matter to my choice of whom to vote for?

  4. I was talking about 'electability' for the general election, i.e. which Democratic candidate is most likely to beat the Republicans. The importance of this seems clear enough. (But I agree with you that it would be silly to vote based on 'electability' within one and the same election, e.g. voting for the frontrunner merely because they're the frontrunner.)

  5. BTW, I have an extremely good (possibly perfect) record for predicting elections (and primaries) in the last decade or so for a wide range of countries better than betting odds, polls and any pundit that I have heard.

  6. "better than betting odds"

    Well then, you stand to make a lot of money.

  7. if only every pundit had to bet on their predictions eh?
    Then we might not get the mediocre commentary on elections we get in the media every day.

  8. Richard,

    Two points:

    1st, actual polls taken comparing Clinton or Obama to various Republican candidates are highly unclear. I don't think there's any real evidence that Obama is more electable than Clinton. It's just this bit of conventional wisdom that's been repeated so much everyone assumes it must be true.

    2nd, You write: "I think our top priority should be to strengthen democracy: improving the political system to make it more responsive to reason."
    This seems like a very odd and theory-laden description of democracy. (Plato would have qualified as a democrat on this definition.) Wouldn't strengthening democracy mainly be about improving voter turn-out, and getting a slew of candidates who better represent the views of the average citizens, and not the inner-power-circles of Washington, regardless of who's more reasonable or has a better line to the Good?

  9. "This seems like a very odd and theory-laden description of democracy"

    I guess that reflects my odd theory of democracy. It's not enough to just pander to the pre-existing "views of the average citizen". It's about improving the quality of public debate, enabling citizens to engage in good-faith deliberations and make informed decisions, etc.

  10. Yeah, I just guess the idea of a dysfunctional democracy isn't conceptually incoherent. Likewise, the idea of an oligarchy that makes up 60% of the population of a country just seems like a misuse of the word.

    Why not just identify two different political virtues: participation by the people at large, and a general culture of open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity. What theoretical/moral/political payout comes with calling both of these virtues 'democracy', and anything that lacks at least one of the virtues an 'oligarchy'? To be honest, the distinction right now looks entirely rhetorical.


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