Thursday, February 07, 2008

Obama: Inspiration AND Substance

Sometimes I hear people say, sure, Obama is inspirational, but is there any substance behind the buzz? Absolutely yes, there is. One of the things that impressed me when I read his book The Audacity of Hope was his unique combination of idealism and pragmatism. He is idealistic enough to have hope, and to express his hope contagiously, but he is also pragmatic enough to know how to get things done. I wrote the other night about how he worked for progressive healthcare initiatives in Illinois, using successful strategies borrowed from business process improvement, including working from motivation to consensus, and bringing in all stakeholders. What he did in Illinois was described as a two-pronged approach. On the one prong, he was working with progressive activists to rally popular support around the initiative, which was crucial in motivating his legislative colleagues. On the other prong, he was working with doctors, hospitals, and insurers to reach a workable compromise that address their bottom line issues. What came out in the end still kept the core principles, so the activists were happy, but it was also a workable solution for the institutional stakeholders. Idealism and pragmatism. That's what makes Obama so compelling. Not only does he inspire, but he knows how to get things accomplished in the political arena.

Since being elected to the US Senate in 2004, Obama has been applying his unique brand of pragmatism and transcending partisan lines to accomplish a number of things. In fact those who pay close attention to such things are impressed by how often Obama's name has appeared on legislation as a freshman senator. One of Obama's priorities was the important but unglamorous work of nuclear non-proliferation, specifically securing "loose nukes" in places like former Soviet republics. He knew the guy to work with was Senator Dick Lugar (R-Indiana), a senior and highly respected foreign policy expert who has become an Obama friend and mentor, despite that "aisle" between them. They have served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and co-sponsored the Lugar-Obama bill extending the concept of cooperative threat reduction. Obama also worked with Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), one of the Senate's top spending constrainers, to successfully pass the Coburn-Obama Transparency Act, making the government publish on the web detailed accounts of where all the money goes, and "exposing the pork". I should be clear that this bipartisanship on Obama's part is not about "triangulation" and giving up his principles to ingratiate himself with the other party. On the contrary, as blogger ObsidianWings wrote:
"This isn't what Obama does. Obama tries to find people, both Democrats and Republicans, who actually care about a particular issue enough to try to get the policy right, and then he works with them. This does not involve compromising on principle. It does, however, involve preferring getting legislation passed to having a spectacular battle."
(That was a great post, if you're detail-oriented and want to read a wonkish account of Obama's accomplishments just in his first years in the Senate.)

On Obama's campaign policy proposals, the charges that he hasn't come forth with details are nonsense, as anyone who cares to peruse his website can see. His proposals are as detailed as Clinton and Edwards on all the major issues, detailed enough that you can see the differences (e.g., Clinton wants universal mandates in healthcare whereas Obama is more pragmatic on that). There's a good summary of his policy proposals in the Harvard Crimson endorsement of him. But in truth, it's not the policy details that distinguish Obama from Clinton, it's the way he would go about getting things done. When it comes to the ability to inspire people around a vision, he has shown himself to be extraordinary. And in the pragmatic ability to bring many stakeholders together and get something done, in a way that constructively reaches across the lines of partisan warfare, he has proven himself uniquely capable. Inspiration and substance. That's Barack Obama.

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