Winning on nothing

Barack Obama won the presidency last night, and the Democrats gained larger majorities in the House and Senate. Despite Hillary Clinton’s vigorous campaign that brought the nomination down to the wire, and nearly split the party; despite defections like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, the PUMAs, and Democrats for McCain; despite McCain nominating a woman for VP, none of it mattered. He won a comfortable victory.

Did anyone know what he was going to do if he won? Basically all we got was stuff like this:

and this…

Obama won on nothing but voter anger towards Republicans and “hope” that a Democrat will do something, again we don’t know what, to make their lives better.

In 2004, shortly before that year’s election, Lawrence O’Donnell was challenged by one of his compatriots on a political discussion show about John Kerry giving the American people “nothing” to go on. O’Donnell made a bold prediction, like he always does (a bit of a fanatic if you ask me), that Kerry would “win on nothing” in that year’s presidential election, just as the Democrats did in 1974 after the Watergate scandal, because people were so fed up with George W. Bush. In other words, all Kerry really had to do was stand there and say “I’m not Bush”, without saying much about what he would do differently, and he would win. It didn’t turn out that way. Bush won handily. However, rather than change their approach the Democrats just repeated the same strategy. This time it worked. The difference is Obama did it better than Kerry did. Kerry was not too great at PR. Obama is much better. Obama also didn’t run against Bush the man, but a weaker campaign in the candidacy of John McCain (which of course he cast as “Bush’s third term”).

It appears that Obama won mainly on the economy. He appeared more sympathetic to the plight of the needy than McCain did. Obama reflected back to people the economic worries they had, and gave them every reason why they should blame the Republicans, whereas McCain tried to reassure people with technical talk that “the fundamentals are good”, and didn’t expend much effort blaming anyone for it.

People feel they need financial security. McCain didn’t sell his ideas in that vein, except to say he would help refinance troubled mortgages. He said he would revitalize the economy by freezing spending, and keep taxes low. In reality this would have been a good start, but what people wanted was a hand-out, not his abiding faith in the American economy. The people have lost faith in the economy, perhaps in capitalism itself.

So what will Obama do?: The good, the bad,…

The plain truth is we don’t know what Obama will do. Despite his public pronouncements of what he will do, he’s changed them enough times I don’t know what to think. Some say he will govern to the far left. Others say he will be a moderate. According to his history, he’s an opportunistic panderer to whatever constituency will give him an advantage. He also has a history of voting mostly on the Left on the issues, with a few exceptions. He’s going to have to pretend to be a centrist if that’s what his strategists suggest. He is definitely going to receive pressure from the House to go Left.

I can anticipate some of what he’ll do based on what I see the Democrats wanting in general. We will definitely see movement towards ending our involvement in Iraq, and there will definitely be pressure to do it ASAP regardless of what’s happening there. Obama indicated this summer that he was amenable to looking at conditions on the ground before making a decision on pullout, despite his earlier position of getting out ASAP. He’s going to have hardly any pressure though to go that direction. The Democrats want out. If he’s going to go slow or reconsider it, that leadership is going to have to come solely from him, and he’s shown no history of fighting for a position.

We will see Guantanamo Bay shut down. Where the prisoners will go is anyone’s guess. This probably would’ve happened if McCain had won, too. Let’s just hope they’re not released into the U.S. general population because our courts try to apply normal evidence-gathering rules on the military.

I think we can forget about low energy prices no matter what form of energy you’re talking about. It’s not happening. The Democrats are solidly against drilling for oil. Obama says he wants clean coal (I don’t know if I trust that) and is against old-style coal-fired plants. He doesn’t seem to like natural gas, but he likes ethanol which we currently get from corn, and which energy experts say is just a political solution. It doesn’t solve any problems for us, because corn ethanol takes more energy to produce than we can get from it, and it puts more CO2 into the atmosphere (if you care about that sort of thing). He likes wind and solar power generation which doesn’t produce much energy, but he’s against expanding nuclear power. So our energy bills are going to go up all around, and I imagine we’ll see rolling blackouts from time to time. We will have to reduce our power usage because it will be rationed. This will be a drag on our economy and affect the poor and middle class most significantly.

I know there are some engineers who say that we’re moving towards an era where we get most of our power from wind and solar, and only a little from fossil fuels, but it just doesn’t add up. The amount of power produced on a unit basis by current alternative energy solutions is a pittance compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

In terms of taxes, there’s no way Obama is going to be able to keep his “tax cut” pledge. The situation is worse now than what Bill Clinton faced in his first term. Even McCain wouldn’t have been able to keep his “keep taxes low” pledge. I never expected him to. He will most certainly raise taxes on the wealthy. He has made that very clear, even saying that he’s really going to do it for moral reasons, not fiscal or economic reasons.

Despite the current economic crisis I fully expect Democrats to not let up on federal spending. We know Democrats. They invented the idea of buying votes. I don’t expect them to change.

I think there’s a real risk that Obama will promote tax and fiscal policies that will prolong our recession, and perhaps deepen it. I have said it before and I’ll say it again. It is possible in a democracy for people to act against their own interests, thinking they’re solving the problem. The reason the public often falls into this attitude in uncertain economic times is despite our love for our freedom, we see the government as an organ of control that we the people can manipulate in order to sort things out. The problem is when the government tries to control the economy it tends to mess it up, because the economy runs on incentives not mandates. We face that issue now with the government takeover of significant institutions in our economy. In this instance it was necessary to avoid a total collapse.

We have avoided the problem of the public misperceiving a solution to economic problems in the past by political leaders convincing the public to change its mind and support policies that are in our interest. This time I’m not so sure we will see that, because Democrats agree with the public’s perception of what needs to happen.

Despite my concerns about his economics mindset, I think on the other hand he will try to promote business growth in alternative energy infrastructure, biotechnology, and information technology. This will require that he take a laissez-faire approach to entrepreneurialism, and given that he will raise taxes on the wealthy I anticipate he will have targeted incentives for business investment. This isn’t the best policy, because managed economies have been shown to not work, but it might produce interesting results that a future, more conservative president can further develop.

Along with this, I think despite the progress that’s been made with turning skin cells into stem cells, Obama will insist on removing Bush’s ban on embryonic stem cell research. In my mind this is more of a political play. Even though it’s probably not needed and is more complicated, certain interest groups apparently have a lot invested in it. He may even see fit to allow what’s called therapeutic cloning, which allows (I think) people to create embryonic clones of themselves from which genetically-compatible stem cells can be harvested to regrow damaged body parts. The problem is this opens the door for unscrupulous operators to start cloning people.

I think another thing he will do, giving a nod to his major contributors in the tech industry, is he will weaken President Bush’s restraints on immigration. Silicon Valley won a victory on Tuesday. Obama is their man. Silicon Valley has complained bitterly about Bush’s immigration policy over the last several years, because many Ph.D students with the skills they want to hire come from outside the United States. There’s been concern that in the long run this trend would reduce American international competitiveness. A loosened policy will open us up more to jihadist attacks, however. I anticipate that Obama will implement a more sophisticated homeland defense strategy to try to prevent them. I have an idea of who he may contact about that, but the strategy I anticipate has more to do with protecting institutions from major attacks, not citizens in the wider sphere. It has the potential of risking more lives in exchange for the potential of greater economic growth down the road. It’s a trade-off. The question is are we willing to take it? Personally I’d rather not, even though I like the idea of keeping America economically competitive. I think human life and keeping the ideas of the American republic are worth more than that.

Some have anticipated that Obama will revitalize government with some technological innovations that have been developed by his campaign. Technology gave Obama a crucial edge over all his rivals. It’ll be interesting to see how Obama’s technology plans pan out, if at all. Ross Perot had a vision some 30-40 years ago of having an “electronic town hall” where citizens’ concerns could be aired and discussed in government directly. He made it a major campaign theme when he made his first independent presidential run in 1992. Now it appears Obama is actually going to try to create a version of that. I think it might be an experiment for a while, but I don’t expect it to last. The president is too busy to listen to hundreds of thousands of messages and discuss issues with the public at length (though I don’t doubt he’ll try at first). Basically I anticipate any progress on improving internet access to the White House will just be an electronic version of what they’ve done for decades of having aides read mail from citizens. If anything he’ll use it to work the other way around, to extend the “constant campaign” way of interacting with the public, which President Clinton invented, out to the internet and people’s smartphones so that he won’t have to deal with the media as much as past presidents have. Have you noticed how few one-on-one interviews Obama had in the presidential campaign? I think that’s a sign of things to come. This campaign proved that the mainstream, old media, and even the newer cable media is less relevant than it used to be. He may still need them, but not as much as past presidents did.

What the Obama campaign has illustrated is that people don’t pay much attention to what politicians say or do. We have very short attention spans, and have difficulty putting together a coherent narrative of what’s really happening. I saw this several times. Obama is a master of catching people in the moment and giving them something they’ll believe about an issue, even though it’s completely out of context. If you’re paying attention it doesn’t make sense, but to most people who don’t, it does. He’s also very effective at recasting an idea into a pleasing image for whatever constituency he’s pandering to. Again, it doesn’t have to make any sense. If people believe it, that’s all that matters as far as he’s concerned.

I don’t hold out too much hope for this, but one hope I have is since Democrats have traditionally been friendly to funding K-12 and higher education, that these institutions will improve under an Obama administration, leading to more innovation in our economy. Obama’s history with radical William Ayers doesn’t give me much hope that his influence will be constructive, though. Ayers is a professor of education (he teaches teachers who go on to teach in public schools), and his agenda has been to turn out political activists in the mold of his own warped world view (a view based on a reality which incidentally died right at the time he and his cronies formed the Weather Underground), who in turn will encourage parents and students to become the same sort of activists. It’s not a real education agenda, but a political one. Obama was totally copacetic with that agenda when he administered the Annenberg grant money in Chicago’s school system. Ayers acquired the grant and set the agenda for how it would be used. The money was directed towards activist organizations who were invited in to schools to “radicalize students”.

This is all domestic politics, but foreign policy issues are going to have to be tackled no matter how badly the Democrats want to ignore them. A huge question in my mind is whether Obama’s presidency is going to be a chaotic one, because he’s got significant issues to deal with that need serious consideration. No more playing around.

…And the ugly

As for Obama’s governing style? Watch out! I’m only being frank here. Obama got his political education in Chicago’s corrupt political machine system. I don’t expect him to be honest with the American people, and I expect that he will carry his corrupt practices into the federal government. Republicans thought they had a corrupt man in Bill Clinton. They didn’t find much to tag him on, though they sure tried. I think with Obama we’ll have the most corrupt presidency since Richard Nixon. Evidence from the Democratic caucuses has surfaced which supports this concern.

For a conservative like me I imagine it’s going to be a frustrating for four years, maybe eight (ugh!). I don’t like seeing the public getting fooled, but I believe that’s what happened in this campaign.

Obama is an example for why democracy is in danger of losing its legitimacy. The old style TV media already has. It’s almost dead. We could be entering a period that’s not unlike the 1960s where our institutions become so delegitimized that it results in societal revolt. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but I’m just trying to be real with you all.

Our society expects to be manipulated by slick, professionally done PR campaigns. The difference is in the past the people who participated in those campaigns actually understood something about governing and had some policy knowledge under their belt. What the Obama campaign did was take the practice of PR to its logical conclusion. His campaign was all PR all the time, not about substance or leadership qualities that you could take to the bank. George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign came close to this. I didn’t see much substance in his first campaign either. Obama went even further, though, by creating a mass delusion that he was somehow more special than other presidents who came before him.

The thing is people don’t really know who Obama is. We got so wrapped up in the fantasy we didn’t stop to ask who he is, and what he’s done that’s worthy of recognition. The Obama campaign and a lot of the MSM actively encouraged this non-questioning attitude, and it’s going to continue. It’s going to be a while before the public wakes up.

Perhaps I don’t know my history of presidential campaigns, but I think Obama is a first in more ways than one. He’s not only our first black president (no, that wasn’t Bill Clinton), he’s also the first presidential candidate I’ve seen who won on nothing. It’s a scary prospect because I still think he’s not up to the job. We may have just elected our first empty suit. Since we have such high expectations of our presidents we tend to think that when things get bad they couldn’t get any worse with an alternative. Oh yes they can!

The conservative movement is dead for now, but do not fear. It will return.

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