Friday, March 26, 2010

The Audacity of Hope

A little over a month ago, I decided to reflect upon Barack Obama's Presidency by reading The Audcacity of Hope. After a year in office, what light could this book shed upon his policies and actions thus far. Not too long ago, I remarked on his seeming concern about the effectiveness of implementing programs with the country so deep in the red. Got some reaction to this on Facebook, and I think the question still stands of whether he believes in the efficacy of current programs, such as the stimulus package, or if he has changed his mind on that score. One is struck by the overall sense of pragmatism in the book, and even though one may disagree with many of the inputs, the outputs rest on common ground.

From my own perspective, I found the chapters on the "Constitution" (chp. 3), "Opportunity" (chp. 5), and "the World Beyond Our Borders" (chp. 8) to be the most intriguing, because they focus on the issues which are of most concern to me, i.e, constitutional philosophy, fiscal policy, and foreign policy.

On constitutional philosophy: In Chapter 3, Barack Obama writes: "Ultimately, though, I have to side with Justice Breyer's view of the Constitution - that it is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world." 

I am definitely more Hamiltonian in my outlook regarding the Constitution than Jeffersonian; however, while I see the Constitution as a fluid document rather than a static one (the necessary and proper clause allowing for such fluidity [e.g., as commerce changes what is necessary and proper to regulate commerce also changes]), I think the argument for it being a living document is often taken to an extreme and untenable. The language is quite plain, and while the opinions of the Founders vary and diverge, their debates provide the backdrop for an understanding of how the Constitution should be implemented. The Constitution is a flexible document and was intended to be so, because the Founders knew they could not predict everything that our nation would need. Compared to the Texas Constitution, the U.S. Constitution operates more on general principles than specificity. This doesn't mean we that we can interpret the powers granted to the federal government to suit any ends. 

Also in Chapter 3, Obama writes, "It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or 'ism,' any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad."

While much of this paragraph deals with the prevention of one overwhelming ideology (such as the establishment of one church), I don't think one could argue that the Constitution was implicitly a rejection of absolute truth. Reading the works of the men who wrote it and debated it, the Constitution is founded on many absolute truths, such as the nature of man and natural rights.

On fiscal policy:  Reading Chapter 5, one gets the impression that President Obama is concerned with our deficits and debts and believes we should reduce them. However, judging from the latest CBO report on the President's budget, one does not get that impression. According to the CBO:
Under the President’s budget, debt held by the public would grow from $7.5 trillion (53 percent of GDP) at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion (90 percent of GDP) at the end of 2020, about $5 trillion more than under the assumptions in the baseline. Net interest would more than quadruple between 2010 and 2020 in nominal dollars (without an adjustment for inflation); it would swell from 1.4 percent of GDP in 2010 to 4.1 percent in 2020.
Now this projects out for the next 10 years, and much could happen between now and then to change this scenario (like everyone else, the CBO cannot predict the future and can only operate within the parameters they are given); however, mandatory expenditures will continue to rise, and we are not reforming the entitlement programs which feed that rise in mandatory spending. For me, this is an untenable situation. Even if you believe we need a short term stimulus to prime the pump of the economic engine, we must get our fiscal house in order sooner rather than later; that means we have to confront our mandatory spending, i.e., our entitlement spending (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security).

On foreign policy: Being a realist, I find the Wilsonian elements of Obama's foreign policy to be disturbing and naive, particularly the idea that we should spread democracy and free markets across the globe (this goal, whether pursued through international institutions (as President Obama prefers) or through other means (as President Bush demonstrated in Iraq), is inherently Wilsonian). In Chapter 8, Obama writes, "Our challenge, then, is to make sure that U.S. policies move the international system in the direction of greater equity, justice, and prosperity [through democracy and free markets] - that the rules we promote serve both our interests and the interests of a struggling world."

Obama is correct that people are looking for basic necessities, such as "food, shelter, electricity, basic health care, [and] education for their children." Basically, people are looking for order and stability. In some parts of the world this does not come through democracy, especially where people do not have a tradition of rights and republican/parliamentary forms of government. These things take time to establish. The first step is to create order out of chaos, and in some cases, that may mean supporting people that do not conform to American ideals (it may also mean allowing people to remain in power and not forcing regime change (by force or otherwise). Without establishing order and stability, a state cannot hope to develop the freedoms and rights that can form the basis of democratic government. We, as Americans, seem to place too much emphasis on democracy and markets as part of our foreign policy, requiring those of other states and on our terms. A stable world order benefits the U.S., but not necessarily a democratic world order (as democracies in most of the world will be unstable and subject to upheaval for the foreseeable future).

Anyway that's my take on the book (or at least the parts of most importance to me).

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