Tag: Barack Obama

Consuming the Barack Obama Brand

by on Sep.06, 2009, under Politics

(Be warned: this post rambles and offers no hopeful conclusions or prescriptions.)

It is no special insight to claim that Barack Obama’s candidacy was largely about his brand. Maybe not as much in the general election, when many voters chose Obama simply because they were disgusted with Republicans after the Bush years. But in the primary, people chose him not just because of his personal charisma but because his campaign managed to associate vague, desirable qualities with him. (Hope. Change.)

Of course brands are always a lie, which is why, I think, so many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama now, even though he is more or less exactly the president he promised to be. He has broken some specific promises, sure. But overall, throughout his campaign he promised to govern as a cautious, technocratic centrist, and so far he has. Yet his brand promised inspiration, and cautious technocratic centrism turns out to be totally uninspiring.

Drinking a ton of Captain Morgan does not, in fact, get you laid. It just gets you a really unpleasant hangover.

Even in their disappointment, though, many Democrats are still reacting fundamentally as consumers of politics. That’s it, they say, I’m not donating any more to the Democratic Party. I’m not buying any more of that.

This is no surprise. It’s how we of a certain class and political bent are encouraged to conduct all of our political activism these days. We buy recycled paper towels and wind-powered electricity. We buy Fair Trade-certified coffee. I buy all these things myself. When we get mad at the owner of Whole Foods, we hold personal boycotts.

So who can blame us for trying to buy a president and then getting buyer’s remorse?

I think that in the end, it will never work for us to approach politics this way. That’s because the consumer mindset depends on the highly attractive idea that my individual choices matter. They do when I am consuming consumer goods. In politics, though, collective action is all that counts.

Unfortunately, because this is how we are most comfortable interacting with the world—as consumers who believe, each of us, that our individual choices are of paramount importance—I also think it will be very difficult if not impossible for us to adopt a different paradigm for political action. Small groups may find new ways to exert political pressure, but I’m guessing that the vast majority of Americans will remain political consumers.

Leave a Comment :, more...

It’s Not Just Status-Quo Bias

by on Aug.27, 2009, under Politics

In this week’s New Yorker, James Surowiecki argues that one of the obstacles to public acceptance of health-care reform is a bias in favor of the status quo:

But the public’s skittishness about overhauling the system also reflects something else: the deep-seated psychological biases that make people resistant to change. Most of us, for instance, are prey to the so-called “endowment effect”: the mere fact that you own something leads you to overvalue it.

And then later:

Compounding the endowment effect is what economists dub the “status quo bias.” Myriad studies have shown that, even if you set ownership aside, most people are inclined to keep things as they are: when it comes to things like 401(k)s, for instance, people tend to adopt whatever their company’s default option is, and with things like asset allocation or insurance plans people tend to stick with whatever they start with. Just designating an option as the status quo makes people rate it more highly. Some of this may be the result of simple inertia, but our hesitancy to change is also driven by our aversion to loss.

I believe it. But I think Surowiecki overlooks several critical elements of what’s going on right now.

First, people aren’t being asked to give up what they have now in favor of a defined Public Health Reform Policy X. They’re being asked to contemplate giving up what they have now in favor of a pig in a poke. There are four versions of health reform already in Congress with a fifth yet to be written, and while the four in existence are broadly similar, who the hell knows what will come out of the Senate Finance Committee or what the final bill will look like? It could be anything from a strong public-option plan to one that offers mandates without price protections.

Of course Democrats knew that this was a risk, which was why most of them wanted to have draft bills on the table before they left for August vacation. But even if they’d accomplished that much, they’d still have faced a second unacknowledged problem: nearly all the versions of health reform currently under serious consideration go farther than the plan Obama campaigned on.

It was Clinton and Edwards, not Obama, who offered plans with universal coverage mandates like the ones in all the bills that have been written. Obama only proposed to mandate coverage for all children and attacked the Clinton/Edwards universal mandate idea, a line of attack Paul Krugman warned against in this now eerily-prescient column. It was Clinton and Edwards, not Obama, who offered a strong public insurance option. Obama’s plan included something called an “exchange” (from the Roll Call link above):

Obama’s system, called the National Health Insurance Exchange, would point consumers to a plan that best suits them. It would “act as a watchdog and help reform the private insurance market by creating rules and standards for participating insurance plans to ensure fairness and to make individual coverage more affordable and accessible,” according to Obama’s campaign Web site.

Personally, I never understood how that was supposed to work.

Finally, the centerpiece of Obama’s domestic agenda during the campaign was never health care at all. It was a tax cut. He already enacted that cut as part of the stimulus bill, though no one seems to be aware of it so he’s getting no credit for it.

So, to review: on top of status quo bias we have an undefined alternative, the fact that that alternative will nearly certainly not be what people voted for, and the fact that most people don’t know that the main domestic policy priority they thought they were voting for has already been accomplished.

I’m glad things have moved in the direction they have. When it came down to Clinton and Obama I voted for Obama, but nearly entirely because of Iraq. I recognized that Clinton’s health care proposals were better, and I think it’s great that Congress is moving much closer to her ideas. I also don’t have any amazing insights about how things should have been done better or could be done better in the months to come.

I guess I’m just getting a little bit tired of the howls of betrayal coming from certain quarters. There is no question that President Obama has so far failed to deliver on some of his campaign promises (notably, to undo Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and to do something meaningful about our history of torture). But on health care Democrats have the chance to enact a better policy than we actually voted for.

4 Comments :, more...

Faith and Doubt on the Opinion Page

by on Aug.10, 2009, under Uncategorized

The Los Angeles Times today features a Gregory Rodriguez column about the importance of doubt in the response to fundamentalism. Riffing off the work of Peter L. Berger and Anton C. Zijderveld, Rodriguez offers a “modicum of uncertainty” as a corrective both to fundamentalist rhetoric and to the recently published spate of anti-religious salvos, e.g. Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens. (I’m naming them, he isn’t.) I thought of the fraught and troubled (and elegant) Catholicisms that come up in the work of Graham Greene or C.S. Lewis. Rodriguez does a decent job of noting, if not historicizing, the fundamentally modern characters of both American and Saudi Wahabbisms:

[M]odernity, with its technologies that move people easily across the Earth and effortlessly send ideas into cyberspace, encourages diversity. Diversity creates choices. Choices create doubt. Too much doubt can lead to desperation. (In German, the words “doubt” — Zweifel — and “desperation” — Verzweiflung — both have zwei — “two” — as their linguistic stems, suggesting mutually exclusive options.) Desperation can lead to the search for certainty. And voila — embracing certainty is the cornerstone of fundamentalism.

As a belief system, Biblical inerrancy is reactive to modernity, catalyzed by Darwin. It dates only as far back as the nineteenth century, and isn’t really imaginable before the printing press could facilitate the distribution of exact copies instead of hand-copied ones. (Hat tip to Adam Kotsko for this part, and for pointing me towards Jaroslav Pelikan.) The fundamentals aren’t fundamental, they’re turtles all the way down shoved under a body of knowledge that no longer needs their authors’ help to stand.

As a “source of tolerance toward others’ firm convictions” (Rodriguez), this kind of doubt can pry open a communicative space much like the one that Michael Berube champions for the university in What’s So Liberal about the Liberal Arts? one that shows “how to think about fundamental disagreements in human affairs, and how to conceptualize fundamental disagreements without coming to the conclusion that the people who disagree with you must be expelled or exterminated.”

It’s a welcome idea, and it recalls the good side of Obama’s sense of humor — the sense, perhaps too much a dog-whistle and too little a change of affairs, that more nuance is deserved than can be had. There’s even a case to be made that John McCain understood this, in a self-serving and cynical fashion.

But it tragically undermines his argument to conclude:

That means that, in the end, President George W. Bush was right when he said that what the fundamentalists of Al Qaeda hate most about us is our freedom. It also means that our democratic freedoms are our best weapons to fight back.

The cases for doubt and for fundamentalist shit-kicker George W. Bush simply can’t be made alongside one another. The former President’s use and abuse of the word “freedom” is best served by this movie review by Daniel Davies:

In the film Braveheart, the Mel Gibson character hardly ever stops talking about “freedom” and, of course, iconically inspires his brave clansmen to charge into battle screaming “FREEDOM!” at the top of their lungs. But in the context of the film, he’s clearly being totally hypocritical. He doesn’t actually propose anything of the sort – the system of government he’s in favour of is another autocratic monarchy, just with him in charge.

Or by an even simpler movie reference:

2 Comments :, , more...

Moments of Transgression

by on Aug.09, 2009, under Politics

“In such moments of transgression, Obama seems inherently uncomfortable with the garish décor of the imperial presidency.

Though not, alas, with the empire.

1 Comment :, , more...

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site: