At tonight’s Clinton-Obama debate, one of the hosts asked an almost inevitable question about Clinton’s “day one” rhetoric: “What would you do differently on day one than a President Obama would when it comes to managing the nation’s economy?” After both candidates answered, it was hard to avoid the impression that the real answer is “not much;” they both had fairly similar plans. And this was the case with a lot of what they said tonight; the policy differences between the two candidates seem relatively minimal, and I suspect that a lot of the places where they do differ are the sorts of things that would change after the election. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama’s health plan ended up taking on more aspects of Edwards’ as it got prepared; and I would be surprised if Clinton would really freeze the prime interest rate for five years, as she promised to do tonight.1)
But this made me realize where I think the biggest difference between the two candidates is: Not on day one of a presidency, but on day sixty.
If a new president were to start to push the sorts of policies that both candidates have endorsed, about health care, the economy, or Iraq, they would start to run into serious resistance. Within two months, some very powerful interests would have marshalled considerable forces to oppose those changes. And on that day, what really matters is whether the president has the ideological leadership of the country; can he or she go out in public, make the case that This Is What We Need To Do, and cause people to form up behind the idea?
Simply having a sheaf of policy proposals, no matter how well-designed, is not enough. The power of the president isn’t in the passing of laws; it’s in the bully pulpit, in the power to set the policy direction of the country and rally the citizenry to do what needs to be done. Bill Clinton knew how to do that. Ronald Reagan did, too. Obama has often been compared to JFK, and I think the comparison is somewhat apt; he may lack experience, but experience has been a poor predictor of presidential success. But Hillary Clinton? After half a year of campaigning, I still don’t know what her grand vision is. From hearing her response and Obama’s to the question of meeting with Raúl Castro, I would almost think it was “cautiousness.” As she’s fond of saying, she has been tested before against strong Republican opposition — but she failed. Her health care plan went down in flames because she didn’t unify anyone behind it, and I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s gotten better at that. Plus, of course, there is a significant field of Republicans who would consider it their first responsibility to stymie anything Hillary Clinton does as a matter of principle; AFAIK, few feel similarly strongly against Obama.
So what I would foresee from a Clinton presidency is a mess. A lot of exciting proposals coming out on the first day, lots of big, thick bills going into the legislature, lots of lobbyists showing up, lots of sneaky ads and negative campaigns running around in the media, and ultimately her being forced to back down. Followed by four years of not being very effective, because the Democrats in Congress can’t get their act together enough to pass things even when they are in the majority unless they have a strong leader, and very likely a Republican president in 2012.
I don’t know what would happen from an Obama presidency, but it’s less likely to be that. Faced with a Day Sixty challenge, I expect that he would have been out there in front of the country for the entire time prior to that, forcefully making his case for reforms; the negative campaign is far less likely to even start, much less gain serious traction, if the people making it realize that public opinion is strongly against them to begin with. I don’t know if his policies would be as good in their details, but they would have a chance to pass.
So this past primary, I voted for Obama. I support his campaign and think he would make a genuinely better leader for this country than Hillary Clinton, a better leader than John McCain.
I don’t want a president with nothing more than policy papers; I want one who can help restore our vision of America as a country worthy of emulation.
And on that question of talking to Castro — this is one of the few times that the candidates really differed. Clinton said she would require him to show evidence of good faith towards democracy before meeting with him. Obama said that he would meet with him without preconditions, but would demand that democracy and human rights be on the agenda. And on this matter of foreign policy, Obama is right. American influence in the world is in its shakiest state in a century; holing up and demanding that people meet our conditions before we deign to meet with them is exactly the sort of thing that would weaken us further. The next president has to step outside of our borders and talk with the outside world, not as their natural superior, but as first among equals by virtue of his conduct.
People often quote JFK’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But there was more to that quote:
My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
That’s how you make the world follow you. Not by ordering them around, and not by acting like someone appointed you king.
(And if you’ve never actually listened to a recording of that address — go do it. Trust me, it’s worth it.)
1 At least, I sincerely hope she wouldn’t.