For my money, the best single pre-election quick-hit analysis of Barack Obama's governing style came from former Reason Foundation political director, and current Big Government Editor in Chief, Mike Flynn. Flynn, who had dealings with the future president in the trenches of Illinois state policymaking, said that when Obama meets with you–particularly when you come from the opposite side of the issue or political aisle–he makes you feel like the smartest guy in the room, surprising and flattering you with his genuine intellectual curiosity and non-dogmatism. Then you leave, happy, and he turns around and votes like a dogmatic progressive.
A year into the Obama presidency, you'd think the non-ideological, open-minded pragmatist narrative would have melted (at least among non-hardcore Democrats) under the hot lights of bailout/stimulus-4-ever policymaking. But you'd be wrong. At least when it concerns Obama's old dance partner David Brooks. Here's Brooks just today:
A year ago, the country rallied behind a new president who promised to end the pendulumlike swings, who seemed likely to restore equilibrium with his moderate temper and pragmatic mind.
In many ways, Barack Obama has lived up to his promise. He has created a thoughtful, pragmatic administration marked by a culture of honest and vigorous debate. When Obama makes a decision, you can be sure that he has heard and accounted for every opposing argument. If he senses an important viewpoint is not represented at a meeting, he will stop the proceedings and demand that it gets included.
If the evidence leads him in directions he finds uncomfortable, he will still follow the evidence. He is beholden to no ideological camp, and there is no group in his political base that he has not angered at some point in his first year.
Such a characterization, I reckon, depends in part on your proximity to the president's pant leg (go ahead and click the link). Out here on the perimeter the "culture of honest and vigorous debate" is not nearly as detectable.
For instance, when Obama said that opponents of health care reform "don't have" any proposed "solution," and sought instead to "preserve the status quo," that was not an honest and vigorous debating point, it was a dishonest attempt to demonize opponents and airbrush from the debate those many, many people–including David Brooks–who just have different ideas about how to reform a deeply flawed system. When the president wrote, on the eve of pushing through the stimulus package 11 months ago, that criticisms of that massive government excretion were echoing "the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis" with their "notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems," he was doing the exact same thing: Demonizing opponents and insinuating they have no substantive arguments. That's a "culture," all right, but of "honest and vigorous debate"?
Day after day, and probably tomorrow more than ever, the president has reduced the health care debate ad absurdium by claiming it's a simple Manichean struggle between noble reformers and dastardly "special interests." Even while the specific special interests in question are helping set new lobbying records in Washington, larding in particular the nookie jars of the most powerful Democratic Party "reformers." He continuously makes claims that "every" reputable expert sees the wisdom of this or that White House policy, despite the widespread existence of reputable experts who do not. Such a debate tactic may indeed be "vigorous," but it's certainly not "honest."
What about that whole "follow the evidence" regardless of ideology thing? How about asking the stranded kids who used to be in D.C.'s gratuitously euthanized vouchers program? I'm sure they're very impressed with the president's campaign pledge to follow "solid, unimpeachable information that identifies what's working and what's not working in our schools…regardless of ideology." No more false choices, indeed!
To pre-empt the rebuttal: Yes, I'm aware that he's a politician, being political. But that's precisely the point. Why on earth are some people still giving this man nearly extra-terrestrial powers of intellectual nobility and non-ideological catholicism? He ain't God, man.
Bonus video from a more innocent age: Mike Flynn, Delaware Dave Weigel, Thumpin' Tim Cavanaugh and myself discuss Obamanomics, 60-seat majorities, gilded corporate lobbyists and more, all from an awkward camera angle at the 2008 Democratic National Convention: