It says a great deal about a liberal Democrat that he does not outrage conservative Republicans. To mention the Clintons, Howard Dean, Al Gore, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or John Kerry to this crowd is to inflict hypertension. But I, for one, can sit through an entire speech by Barack Obama without flinching. I can admire his poise, his fluid delivery, and his self-confident, dignified presence.
Part of the reason Obama doesn't send his political adversaries up the wall is that he employs the language of unity and patriotism. He is clearly the most gifted speaker to grace American politics since Ronald Reagan. And as with Reagan, there is a basic decency to Obama that blunts dislike.
But as he moves into the lead for the Democratic nomination, however much we may delight in seeing the air deflate from the Clinton dirigible, we must ask: What would a President Obama look like?
Much of his rhetoric is lighter than air -- almost content-free. It's the past versus the future, hope over fear, one nation not two, yes we can, turn the page, and so forth. But when you get past the music and really focus on the lyrics, Obama emerges as an utterly conventional, down-the-line liberal Democrat. He claims to be all about the future, but his policy ideas are about as modern as disco and the leisure suit.
In pitching his universal health care idea, Obama asserts that Americans spend twice as much per capita on health care as Canadians or Germans, yet "our outcomes are not better, in some cases they are worse." He is correct about per capita spending, but not about results. As evidence of our poor outcomes, he cites infant mortality statistics from the state of Mississippi (and only Mississippi, our poorest state) to suggest that infant mortality rates are rising.
The use of infant mortality as a measure of health care quality has been shown to be unreliable. Infant mortality is closely tied to social factors like illegitimacy, maternal drinking and other misbehavior far more than to the availability of health services. Further, cross-cultural comparisons are problematic, as countries define the term differently. In some countries, a newborn must breathe and show other signs of life before a death will be counted in the statistics. In America, every baby delivered (including severely premature infants) counts. Further, as US News & World Report has noted, "In Austria and Germany, fetal weight must be at least 500 grams (1 pound) to count as a live birth." In the U.S., we count them all. Besides, infant mortality is also closely tied to multiple births. Because so many Americans are resorting to (expensive) fertility treatments, our rate of multiple births has skyrocketed in recent years.
Obama always summarizes his health care pitch with the dubious claim that if we just simplify record keeping and streamline health delivery, we can save "$100 to 125 billion per year, enough to provide health insurance to every man, woman, and child in the country."
That's dubious, to say the least. It's the no trade-offs necessary happy talk he peddles on many issues. We don't have to make difficult choices about energy. If we simply increase required miles per gallon to 45, "we'd have to import zero oil from the Middle East." And echoing Al Gore, Obama urges that green technology will be a great source of new wealth as American ingenuity devises improved products.
Well maybe, but if environmentally friendly products were great wealth generators, why would government need to subsidize them? And while Obama doesn't shrink from recommending new taxes, he assures listeners that these will be paid only by the rich. Is this new or cloyingly familiar? He who taxes Peter to pay Paul can usually count on the vote of Paul.
The war on terror scarcely exists in the world Obama traces for his audiences. Instead, he focuses relentlessly on what he regards as the misguided war in Iraq. "We need to do more than end the war," he intones, "we need to end the mindset that got us into war." We know which mindset Sen. Obama will bring to foreign policy -- the "diplomacy only" style last employed to such great effect by Jimmy Carter.
"Cynicism is a sorry kind of wisdom," Obama offers in one of his better lines. But a little worldliness would not be amiss for the golden-tongued senator. All of that soaring rhetoric is supported by policies that are so old they creak. Obama may be shiny, bright and new, but his ideas are suffering from senility.