Competence Over Ideology

Obama seems to be leaning toward restraint on the domestic front. But the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state has many wondering if prudence will be the guiding light in Obama’s foreign policy.

Barack Obama called for change during the presidential campaign. He's providing it. But his decisions may not represent the kind of change that those on the right and left who supported him always anticipated. He has apparently flummoxed both sides.

Writing in the December 1 American Conservative, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos observes, "Perhaps there's no area more fraught with potential disappointments than in foreign policy and defense. Liberal peaceniks and traditional conservatives held high hopes that Obama would at least restrain the current interventionist policies in the Middle East and Central Asia, promote diplomacy over force, and redirect resources-both human and monetary-back home." The Nation is sounding a similarly pensive note: "Was it all just a ruse, now that Hillary is, for better or for worse, set to become the top diplomat in an Obama Administration? Some of Obama's supporters in the primary-not least the former Clintonites who risked retribution and friendships by backing Obama in the primary-must be puzzled by HRC's pending appointment. Didn't we support Obama precisely because we didn't want the Clintons back in charge, his supporters must be thinking?"

Maybe not, but what Obama's choices indicate is that his temperament is fundamentally a conservative one-and it's the reason, after all, that he got elected in the first place. Obama's statements and choices suggest sobriety rather than risk-taking. Obama, in other words, is the anti-Bush not only in tone, but also in substance. Where Bush was a radical, Obama could be the most conservative president America has had in decades. This, in brief, could be the real change that Obama represents.

Consider Obama's introduction of the highly capable Peter Orszag to run the Office of Management and Budget. Obama didn't say that the deficit was irrelevant, as Vice President Dick Cheney has stated in the past. Quite the contrary. He said the budget deficit is a big deal: "In these challenging times, when we are facing both rising deficits and a sinking economy, budget reform is not an option. It is an imperative. We cannot sustain a system that bleeds billions of taxpayer dollars on programs that have outlived their usefulness. . . . " He also said that he would go through the budget "line by line." Who was the last president that wanted to do that? None other than Ronald Reagan. Whether Obama really will curb waste, fraud, and abuse is another matter. But he's certainly not sticking to liberal dogma.

On taxes, Obama also seems to be taking a prudent course. Instead of sticking to his campaign vow to stick it to the wealthy, he's demonstrating ideological flexibility. The latest line from his camp is that the Bush tax cuts will not be rolled back before 2011, but allowed to expire naturally. If the economy has recovered by then, it's unlikely that Congress will simply allow a tax hike to take place. A compromise will be struck. That's good news for the economy and, as Obama must know, will help him defy the charge of being a tax-and-spend liberal in 2012.

What about foreign policy? Here matters are less clear-cut than on the domestic front. Conventional wisdom is that Obama will be consumed with domestic problems. Maybe. But most presidents, whether they like it or not, end up devoting much of their energies to foreign affairs. While both liberals and conservatives may call for an end to the empire-the vast array of bases stretching around the globe-it would be startling if Obama were able to effect a wholesale revision in American commitments. To some extent, Bush has already done the heavy lifting for Obama by obtaining an agreement with Iraq for withdrawal over the next three years. Such an agreement will help immunize Obama from charges of betraying the cause from the neocon right as he pulls out of Iraq. His real question mark will be Afghanistan, where colossal problems remain. Comparisons of Obama to John F. Kennedy abound, but they may come too close for comfort: Afghanistan could become Obama's Vietnam.

Whether Obama will adhere to his pledge to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan to battle the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden is an open question. He might seek to treat with the Taliban. He might reach out to Iran. He might abolish the program for establishing a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, supposedly directed at Iran but in reality aimed at Russia. Not just the neocons but also the liberal hawks, however, will be ready to pounce on any signs of what they deem appeasement. The Washington Post editorial page has preemptively excoriated the notion of selling out the Bush agenda. In a November 24 editorial, "The Freedom Challenge," it declared that Obama's "rhetoric will not mean much unless democracy promotion is baked into the administration's structure, budget, and personnel . . . as the world watched and measured America's shifting stance on apartheid, so it will measure the next administration's commitment to democracy in Burma and beyond."

Hillary Rodham Clinton has adopted a hard-line on a number of these issues, which is what has some realist conservatives and left-liberals fretting about her becoming secretary of state. Certainly Bill Clinton's presidency was marked by the self-perception of America as, in Madeleine Albright's phrase, the "indispensable nation." Hillary's tenure as secretary of state might seem to augur a rerun of such rhetoric.