By this point in the presidential campaign, the public knows a charismatic Barack Obama wants sweeping "change."
While the national media have often fallen hard for the Illinois
senator's rhetoric - MSNBC's Chris Matthews said he felt a "thrill
going up my leg" during an Obama speech - exactly what kind of change
can Mr. Obama bring if he's elected in November?
Foreign Policy: Take Mr. Obama's foreign-policy
pronouncements, which promise a break with the unhappy past. Two
doctrines are most prominent. One is to engage our enemies and be nicer
to our allies. The other calls for leaving Iraq on a set timetable.
The problem with the first is that key allies like the conservative
French, German and Italian governments - unlike the days of rage in
2003 - now embrace pretty much the same policies we do. Britain and the
European Union just called for imposing tougher sanctions on Iran,
while France and Britain promise more troops for Afghanistan.
In February 2007, Mr. Obama called for American troops out of Iraq
by March 2008. But in the last four months since that proposed final
departure, violence is way down: The U.S. military and Iraqi army have
stabilized much of the country.
The world in January 2009 will not be the same as it was in February
2007. So would a President Obama really engage Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just as the Europeans are isolating him, or give up
on Iraq when the American military may well gradually draw down in
victory, not defeat?
Energy: Gas prices are soaring. Americans are
frustrated (and a bit ashamed) that we continue to beg the Saudis to
pump another half-million barrels a day on their soil and off their
shores to ease global tight supplies, when we could pump much more than
that in Alaska, off our coasts and on the Outer Continental Shelf - and
thus save hundreds of billions of dollars.
Yet Mr. Obama's change probably wouldn't include more drilling; more
nuclear power plants; or fuel extraction from tar sands, shale or coal.
Instead, his strategy emphasizes more conservation; mass transit; and
wind, solar and alternate green energy. All that is certainly wise and
could be a winning combination by 2030, but right now it won't fill our
Taxes: Mr. Obama also wishes to raise trillions in new
taxes by upping the capital-gains margins, restoring inheritance taxes,
raising the income rates on the upper brackets and lifting the income
caps on Social Security payroll taxes. Such an old-fashioned
soak-the-rich plan will please a strapped public tired of overpaid CEOs
and Wall Street jet-setting.
Yet forcing the affluent to pay even more won't necessarily reduce
annual deficits of the last eight years or pay down the huge national
debt - not when Mr. Obama promises more vast entitlements in health
care, education and housing, and current federal revenues were
increased by past tax cuts that spurred economic growth.
Mr. Obama promises a new style of politics that is issue-based,
rather than attack-dog. But so far, he has campaigned in conventional
fashion: He is tough on his opponents and as prone to overstatements
and mischaracterizations as any other candidate.
The take-no-prisoners Moveon.org, which gave us the "General Betray
Us" ads, is now an ally running third-party hit pieces on John McCain.
Such outside help is customary in an election but seems inconsistent
with Mr. Obama's disavowals of the hardball politics of the past.
Mr. Obama has promised a new dialogue on race and tolerance. His own
impressive personal journey may make that possible. But his 20-year
intimate relationship with the racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright suggests
that for years he was heavily invested in the rather tired and
predictable identity politics of grievance rather than a vocal advocate
of novel racial transcendence.
Overall, Mr. Obama's announced policies are sounding pretty much the
same old, same old once promised by candidates like George McGovern,
Mike Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry. Of course, a
return to the standard big-government nostrums of the past may well be
what the angry voters want after 20 years of the Bushes and Clintons.
But it is not a novel agenda, much less championed by a post-racial,
So what are the Democrats thinking? That a mesmerizing,
path-breaking African-American candidate - coupled with Bush exhaustion
- will overcome past public skepticism of Northern presidential
Democratic candidates, traditional liberal agendas and Mr. Obama's own
relative lack of experience.
In other words, we should count on hope rather than change.