Is There Any Hope For This Man?

Assessments of Barack Obama from planet reason


In July a Rasmussen poll found that libertarians make up 4 percent of the nation's likely voters—and that they favor Barack Obama over John McCain, 53 percent to 38 percent. There's a Libertarians for Obama blog (two, actually), a Libertarians for Obama Facebook group (54 members and counting), even Libertarians for Obama bumper stickers and T-shirts.

Though perhaps surprising, given libertarians' historical Republican leanings, this development shouldn't be shocking, given what the last eight years of GOP rule have brought: an exploding federal budget, a hefty new entitlement, and an expansionist foreign policy. It doesn't help that McCain has been campaigning for more than a decade as a "national greatness" conservative, not as a small-government Republican in the tradition of his Senate predecessor, Barry Goldwater.

At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the prospect of an Obama presidency. The candidate who drew cheers from antiwar activists and civil libertarians by opposing the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act from the beginning also supports an array of new economic regulations and some blurry but potentially significant tax increases. His not-exactly-pacific rhetoric about Iran and Darfur, combined with his vote for a bill granting telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for illegally assisting government surveillance, has some worried that his positions on foreign policy and civil liberties might be closer to his predecessor than they'd like. And then there's the fact that an Obama presidency will almost certainly mean the same party controls both the White House and Congress, with eight years' worth of pent-up ambitions and long overdue favors to pay back.

reason gathered together a clutch of libertarians and fellow travelers in August and asked them to share their hopes and fears regarding an Obama presidency.

-Katherine Mangu-Ward

Virginia Postrel

Barack Obama has not run as the typical candidate, selling specific policies, a worldview, experience, or executive competence. He has instead sold himself, a glamorous icon onto whom supporters project their hopes and dreams and, in many cases, their own identities. If elected, he will have not a policy mandate but an emotional one: to make Americans feel proud of their country, optimistic about the future, and warmly included, regardless of background, in the American story.

A President Obama could deliver just the opposite. He might stumble badly abroad, projecting weakness that invites aggression (think Jimmy Carter) or involving America in a humanitarian-driven war at least as long and bloody as Iraq (think Sudan). As for inclusiveness, you can get it two ways: by respecting individual differences—however eccentric, offensive, or hard to control—or by jamming everyone into a conformist collective. Obama's New Frontier-style rhetoric has a decidedly collectivist cast. NASA is great, prizes for private space flight are stupid, and what can we make you do for your country? A guy who thinks like that will not worry about what his health care plan might do to pharmaceutical research or physicians' incentives.

Obama's campaign draws enormous power from his rhetoric of optimism-"hope," "change," and "Yes, we can." But the candidate's memoir betrays a tragic vision. In Dreams From My Father, almost everyone winds up disappointed: Obama's father, his stepfather, his grandparents, the people he meets in Chicago. Only his naive and distant mother keeps on pursuing happiness. Then she dies of cancer. He may preach hope, but Obama is not a sunny FDR or JFK. He's not a Ronald Reagan, expecting a pony in a room of manure. He assumes that any pony will have died of suffocation and worries that the horseless carriage has thrown stable hands permanently out of work. Hope is audacious because, at least in this world, it's futile and absurd. Faceless "power" is always waiting to crush your dreams.

The president's power has a face, and Obama's most fervent supporters believe he can repair the world with his face alone. Perhaps they're right, at least for the first month or two. We can only hope that he will respect the multiplicity of American dreams and the unpredictable ways in which their pursuit provides the basis for a better future.

Virginia Postrel, editor of reason from 1989 to 2000, is a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic Monthly. She is writing a book on glamour for The Free Press, which also published her book The Future and Its Enemies. She blogs at dynamist.com/weblog and at deepglamour.net.

Brink Lindsey

I believe that risking new mistakes is better than repeating old ones. On that basis, I feel obliged to look on the bright side of an Obama presidency. After all, I voted for George W. Bush twice, and I supported the Iraq war.

Iraq today is a complicated mess, and how best to extricate ourselves is a tough problem. I don't know how well Barack Obama would handle that problem, but at least he sees it clearly: His goal is to get us out of there. John McCain's goal, on the other hand, is to keep us there as long as possible. That fundamental difference is reason enough in my mind to root for Obama.

The Iraq fiasco was just one consequence of a deeper misjudgment: a panicky overreaction to 9/11 that inflated the real and serious threat of terrorism into an apocalyptic fantasy of World War IV. Delusions of "existential" danger lay behind the Bush administration's resort to torture and its mad claims of absolute executive power as well as its blundering botch job in Iraq. I myself suffered from such delusions in the first years after 9/11, but the accumulation of countervailing evidence eventually freed me from them. Bush, of course, has proved incurable. And McCain's case of 1938-itis is, if possible, even worse.

Obama, to his great credit, resisted the urge to panic all along. After eight years of George W. Bush and all the damage he has done to American interests and influence in the world, it is vitally important for the next occupant of the White House to be able to face a messy and dangerous world with a clear head. Only Barack Obama is equipped to do that.

Alas, when it comes to domestic policy, Obama's inclinations on spending and regulatory issues are almost uniformly wrongheaded. My hope is that circumstances will constrain him from following those inclinations very far. But in foreign affairs, where the president has a much freer hand, he is the clearly superior alternative.

Brink Lindsey is vice president for research at Cato and author of The Age of Abundance (Collins Business).

Richard A. Epstein

The Obama campaign is rich in contradictions for those who approach politics as defenders of strong property rights and limited government. On the positive side, I applaud Obama for showing a willingness to improve the procedural protections afforded to persons detained at Guantanamo Bay, and to cut back on the hostility toward immigration into the United States. And I hope that on key matters of race relations, he would be able to defuse many lingering historical resentments.

Unfortunately, on the full range of economic issues, both large and small, I fear that his policies, earnestly advanced, are a throwback to the worst of the Depression-era, big-government policies. Libertarians in general favor flat and low taxes, free trade, and unregulated labor markets. Obama is on the wrong side of all these issues. He adopts a warmed-over vision of the New Deal corporatist state with high taxation, major trade barriers, and massive interference in labor markets. He is also unrepentant in his support of farm subsidies and a vast expansion of the government role in health care. Each of these reforms, taken separately, expands the power of government over our lives. Their cumulative impact could be devastating.

My friends at the University of Chicago pooh-pooh my anxieties. They insist Obama will be a "pragmatic" president whose intelligent economic advisers will steer him far from the brink of this regulatory folly. His liberal Senate voting record leaves me no confidence in their cheery view. I wish he would back off publicly from these unwise policies. I would be thrilled if he supported dismantling even one government regulatory program. But he is, unfortunately, a prisoner of our times. The large back story of this campaign is that both parties have abandoned any consistent defense of limited government.

Richard A. Epstein is a professor of law at the University of Chicago. His books include Takings (Harvard University Press) and Simple Rules for a Complex World (Harvard University Press).

Bruce Bartlett

In researching a recent article for The New Republic about "Obamacons," I communicated with a number of libertarians and conservatives who are supporting Barack Obama for president. While the degree of their support varied, they shared some common rationales.

First, Obama is not a member of George W. Bush's party. For many, this is enough. Bush has so debased the Republican brand during the last eight years (with a lot of help from Republicans in Congress) that many people, including me, cannot conceive of voting for anyone running on the Republican line.

Second is the Iraq War. Obama's opposition to the war is sometimes equivocal, but there is no question he is more opposed to it than is his principal opponent, John McCain. While McCain does criticize Bush on the war, it is only on the grounds that the president didn't prosecute it vigorously enough.

Finally, there is the issue of change. Obama at least promises that, while McCain will simply give us four more years of what 70 percent or more of Americans are disgusted with. Some of those changes will be bad—Obama's tax and trade policies will probably be worse than McCain's—but Obama's approach to the war and civil liberties will undoubtedly be better.

Libertarians have to decide which is more important to them. But they must also consider that Congress will be overwhelmingly Democratic regardless of who wins the presidency. I think it is more likely that Obama will restrain Congress's worst instincts, as the Clinton administration often did on issues such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, than that McCain will be able to do so with nothing but a veto pen. On balance, I think there's a better chance that an Obama presidency will end up being preferable to a McCain presidency from a libertarian point of view. To put it another way, I prefer another Bill Clinton to another Gerald Ford.

Bruce Bartlett was deputy assistant secretary of the treasury for economic policy from 1988 to 1993. His books include Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy (Doubleday).

Jonathan Rauch

"Barack Obama? Not a chance," I said last year, when he announced his candidacy. "Too inexperienced." The last time I was so wrong about a politician was in 1980, when I had the excuse of being 20 years old. "Ronald Reagan? No way. A simpleton."

What I misjudged about Reagan was that he was a deeply substantive man. His ideas were the most important aspect of him. With my record on Obama predictions, I hesitate to try again, but the editors of this fine publication have offered me the price of lunch chez Denny's, so here goes: Obama is the un-Reagan, inasmuch as his ideas are the least important aspect of him.

The structure of his thinking on policy appears to be entirely conventional: orthodox center-left Democrat. Back in 1992, Bill Clinton was more creative. What matters about Obama, I think, is not what he believes so much as who he is, on the upside, and which party he belongs to, on the downside.

The upside: his subtle mind, silver tongue, moderate temperament, cool deftness, and magnetic charisma. The last time we saw those traits combined was in John F. Kennedy, who I think was a good president. Kennedy gets dinged by liberals for not doing much, but that was a feature, not a bug: He was personally charismatic enough to make the country feel ably led but politically shrewd enough to avoid overreaching. If I read Obama right, he may offer a similar blend of charisma and caution. The election of a black president, opening a new chapter in America's tormented racial history, only sweetens the deal.

The downside: Obama belongs to the same party that controls Congress, and if the last 15 years have taught anything, it is to be wary of one-party government. Unified control nearly sank Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1994, and it pretty much did sink George W. Bush in 2003-2006. Obama might carry it off better in 2009-2010, but I'd be surprised. One-party rule would force the Democrats to govern from the center of their party instead of the center of the country. The natural upshot would be a leftward lurch, followed by public disgruntlement and political backlash, followed by sad talk of a second consecutive uniter who turned out to be a divider—followed, perhaps, by the realization that unifying the government divides the country.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer for the National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Deirdre N. McCloskey

Since I live in Chicago, and anyway am a rational economist, I'm going to vote Libertarian, as usual. After all, why throw away my vote?

But I admit to hoping very much that Obama wins, if only to punish the neocons for their presumption, and worse. One big positive of getting a fellow who taught constitutional law into the Oval Office is that he's likely (isn't he?) to restore constitutional government. The United States under Cheney/Bush stands one "terrorist" attack away from fascism. Think of a ramped-up FBI, torture of suspects, a compliant press. Come to think of it, we already have it, eh?

Obama's characteristic pose is listening. I've heard that when McCain works a room he finds out who is powerful and goes to them ("Excuse me, but there's someone over there who matters more than you"), but Obama listens in an egalitarian way. Good on him. Remember, though, that we libertarian populists had similar hopes for Jimmy Carter, and we even thought Bill Clinton was listening.

The big negative is that Obama is after all a Lake Front liberal (as Chicagoans say). Americans would look forward to higher minimum wages, higher taxes on capital gains, higher corporate taxes, and a lot of other standard-issue Democratic Party symbolic silliness in economics. I'm praying (like Barack Hussein Obama II, I'm a churchgoing Christian) that he gets a bunch of Chicago School economists to advise him. And listens. That way he won't "renegotiate" the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he might even (faint hope) try to get the Doha round restarted: You poor countries allow us to send you some stuff, and in exchange we'll drop the farm programs. As I said, faint hope.

I wish I would grow up and stop expecting presidents to do good.

Deirdre N. McCloskey teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her latest book, with Stephen Ziliak, is The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives (University of Michigan Press).