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The Obama I (don't) know

Richard A Epstein, Forbes | November 04, 2008

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My Obama number is one. I know him through our association at the University of Chicago Law School and through mutual friends in the neighborhood. We have had one or two serious substantive discussions, and when I sent him e-mails from time to time in the early days of his Senate term, he always answered in a sensible and thoughtful fashion. And yet, for assessing the course of his likely presidency, I don't know him at all.

It should come as no surprise that the traditionally liberal Hyde Park community is a veritable hotbed of support for Obama. So my manifest reluctance on his candidacy raises more than a single eyebrow: Loyalty for the home team counts.

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The odd point is how his many learned and thoughtful supporters couch their endorsement. Almost without exception, they praise the man, not the program. Their claim is that Obama has proved himself to be a consummate politician who understands that the first principle of holding high office is to get re-elected.

His natural moderation in tone and demeanour, therefore, translate into getting advisers who know their substantive areas, and listening to them before making any rash moves. The dominant trope is that he will be a pragmatic president who will move in small increments toward the centre, not in bold steps toward the left.

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But is it all true? The short answer is that nobody knows. Virtually everyone who knows him recognises that he plays his cards close to the vest, so that you can make your case to him without knowing whether it has registered. At this point, my fear is that the change in office will not lead to a change in his liberal voting record, as reinforced by a hyperactive Democratic platform.

My great fear is that a landslide victory will give him solid majorities in both Houses of Congress, so that no stalling tactics by Republicans can slow down his legislative victory procession. At that point his innate pragmatism will line up with his strong left-of-center beliefs on issues that have thus far been muted during the campaign.

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Put otherwise, Obama's vague calls for change that 'you can believe in' are, to my thinking, wholly retrograde in their implications. At heart, he is an unreconstructed New Dealer who can see, and articulate, both sides on every question -- but only as a prelude to championing the old corporatist agenda with a vengeance.

That program has three key components, which, taken together, can convert a shaky financial situation into a global depression. The first of these is his anti-free trade attitude that loomed so large in the primaries. But even Obama cannot repeal the principle of comparative advantage.

Any efforts to scuttle NAFTA, deny fast-track approval to other agreements, or limit outsourcing will not be as dramatic as the Smoot-Hawley tariff. But combined, they would act as a depressant on general economic growth. Everyone would suffer.

Second, Obama is committed to strengthening unions by his endorsement of the Employer Free Choice Act, a misnamed statute that forces union recognition without elections and employment contracts through mandatory arbitration thereafter. That one-two punch could tie up the very small businesses that Obama seems determined to help. Tax relief won't work for firms that won't get formed because a labour fight is not in their initial budget.

And third, he is in favour of progressive individual taxes and high corporate taxes. It is as though the US does not have to compete for labour and capital in global markets. My fear is that with his strong egalitarian bent, he has not internalised the lesson that high rates do not offset declining revenues.

Thus, even before we get to the added bells and whistles of the modern welfare state -- windfall profits taxes, ethanol subsidies, health care -- an Obama administration could lock us into a downward spiral by ignoring the simple fundamentals of sound governance. Boy, does this stalwart libertarian ever hope that his friends are right and his gloomy prediction is wrong!

Richard Epstein writes a weekly column for Forbes.com. He is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor of law at the University of Chicago, visiting this fall at the New York University School of Law.


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