There's the Beef
By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, February 22, 2008; D01
During the course of our endless presidential campaigns, lots of silly things are said by the candidates and the press. But few are more ridiculous than the idea that Barack Obama is just an empty suit.
We're talking here about a former president of the Harvard Law Review. Have you ever met the people who get into Harvard Law School? You might not choose them as friends or lovers or godparents to your children, but -- trust me on this -- there aren't many lightweights there. And Obama was chosen by all the other overachievers as top dog. Compared with the current leader of the free world, this guy is Albert Einstein.
Given his youth and relatively short time in government, it's fair to ask if Obama has the wisdom and experience to be president. But it's quite another to suggest that he has no vision, no program, no specifics.
Let's begin with the fact that he has written two books (all by himself, unlike a certain other candidate). The first offers a compelling personal narrative that, for some reason, is dismissed as puffery by a presumptive Republican nominee who first ran for office on the strength of his compelling personal narrative. The second book is a thoroughly readable, intelligent and well-reasoned discourse on politics and policy that offers a fresh perspective on a wide range of issues.
Obama has participated in 18 televised presidential debates in which he has managed to hold his own not only with Hillary the Wonkette, but also with the Senate's leading light on foreign affairs, a former United Nations ambassador and a former vice presidential candidate who was a skilled trial lawyer. I watched most of the debates, and while I didn't agree with everything he said, I don't recall thinking that Obama was in over his head.
Now that Obama is sprinting toward the finish line in the Democratic marathon, his opponents are suddenly asking, "Where's the beef?"
If it's beef you like, all you have to do is go to http://barackobama.com, where you will find a refrigerator case packed with prime policy meat. That may come as something of a surprise to you, considering how utterly lacking in substance the reporting and analysis has been over the last year. But it's all there -- as much as or more than is offered by other candidates and certainly as much as any voter would require.
There is, for example, the 11-page, single-spaced energy plan that features a cap-and-trade system that would require businesses to purchase credits for 100 percent of their carbon emissions, along with a requirement that all electric companies produce a quarter of their juice from renewable resources. Obama would also invest $15 billion annually -- a big chunk of change, even by federal standards -- in biofuels and other forms of clean energy. He wants to change the way electricity rates are set to give utilities more incentives to save power rather than produce it.
Those aren't uniquely Obama's ideas -- in one form or another, they've been part of the Democratic congressional agenda for years. And considering how fiercely they are opposed by industry and free-market Republicans, they aren't going to produce the kind of across-the-aisle compromise that Obama promises to deliver. But it's hardly like there's nothing there.
Or perhaps you'd like to curl up with a copy of Obama's 15-page, single-spaced health-care plan, including 65 footnotes. You'll find a cogent analysis of what ails the health-care system, along with the best thinking of Democratic health-care reformers on how to fix it: disease management, computerized medical records, radical reforms of the insurance market, tax subsidies for low-income families and federal reinsurance for catastrophic illness. There's even a requirement that businesses either offer health insurance to their workers or pay into a universal health-care fund.
The plan would be expensive and involve a major federal intrusion into the marketplace, and there is a legitimate question as to whether the plan would work better if everyone were required by law to buy health insurance. But by any measure it is a serious plan that would win the support not only of labor but also of major parts of the business community, including hospitals and health insurers.
Finally, there's the 40-plus-page economic agenda that outlines Obama's proposals for avoiding a recession, helping homeowners avoid foreclosure, restoring the rights of workers to form unions, improving public education, combating poverty and shifting the tax burden from the middle class to the upper class.
Once again, Obama has borrowed liberally from the standard Democratic policy playbook, adding a few twists of his own. He's willing to gently challenge the teachers' unions on merit pay, the trial lawyers on medical malpractice and liberals on raising Social Security taxes rather than pretending there's no problem with the retirement program. But this is hardly the kind of challenge to Democratic interest-group politics that Obama's "change" rhetoric suggests.
Particularly disappointing is his willingness to parrot the labor movement mantra about labor and environmental standards, which is really nothing more than protectionist code. And there's no way Obama can do all that he proposes and get anywhere close to balancing the federal budget.
But such shortcomings are hardly unusual for a political campaign; the Clinton economic program is no better. And as we're all about to find out, it's far better than the thin gruel offered so far by John McCain, who, God help us, plans to bone up on economics by reading Alan Greenspan.
McCain's economic program consists of extending the Bush tax cuts, cutting corporate tax rates and banning taxes on the Internet and cellphones. His "comprehensive" health-care reform program consists of two pages of platitudes with no specifics and no way to pay for itself. And while he calls for "tough choices" in reining in entitlement spending, he still hasn't found one he's willing to share with us.
Barack Obama isn't a saint. He's not a savior. But in substance as well as style, he's the most impressive presidential candidate to come along in quite a while.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached email@example.com.