President of the United States of Labor?

The television images are striking. A handsome young candidate, an adoring audience, a beautifully delivered speech in which he offers to bring us together as a nation, and speaks of his "movement for change:" "I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years" he says, "re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don't want to pit Red America against Blue America, I want to be the President of the United States of America." Nice rhetoric. Is it real or is it theater? Relax: it's theater.

A visit to Barack Obama's website reveals that this is not a candidate who is offering a new left-right synthesis--a new way of looking at our politics and bridging the old Red-Blue divide. Instead, what we see in 60 pages of policy proposals and commitments are the same old ideas of the Democratic Left. Even the rhetoric is old.

The Obama program has been attacked with the slogan "Where's the beef?" This attack is misplaced. There's plenty of beef; the problem is that it's very well-aged.

On economics: "I'm in this race to take tax breaks away from companies that are moving jobs overseas and put them in the pockets of hard working Americans who deserve it. And I won't raise the minimum wage every ten years--I will raise it to keep pace so that workers don't fall behind. That's why I am in it. To protect the American worker."

The same old disputes come back to us with this on unions: "Obama will ... fight for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act" (this is the failed proposal to eliminate the secret ballot on unionization, of which Obama was a co-sponsor). And this on Social Security: "Obama will protect Social Security benefits for current and future beneficiaries alike ... he does not believe it is necessary or fair to hardworking seniors to raise the retirement age. Obama is strongly opposed to privatizing Social Security." And this on taxes: "Obama is committed to repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans."

On foreign policy: "Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months." On Iran: "Obama believes that we have not exhausted our non-military options in confronting this threat; in many ways, we have yet to try them." And of course the belief that we can talk our enemies out of their hatred: "The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don't like."

In the 60 pages of words, there's hardly a major new idea or an idea that departs significantly from the Democratic Party's agenda since the New Deal. It's all here: the activist government, the ambitious programs without reference to costs, the appeal to some people's sense of victimization. There is also one striking omission--a list of anything that Senator Obama has actually done in the course of his brief career to advance any of these goals.

The point is that there is nothing here to back up a candidacy that is based on bringing the nation together to effect change. It's a rehash of the same policies and programs that the Democratic Left has been pushing--largely without success--for the last 40 years. For some people, as least, the era of big government is not over.

What appears to qualify this candidacy as a candidacy of change is not the policies or programs it relies on but the fact that the same old ideas are coming from a new and telegenic messenger. It is no wonder, then, that this messenger has excited and attracted young people. If you've never heard this message before, and if you don't have any background in the politics of the last two generations, you might think these ideas will be generally accepted. But anyone who has followed American politics over more than the last year knows that there is real disagreement in this country about the role of government, about trade, about taxes, about confronting the nation's enemies. If Senator Obama is ultimately elected, and if his program ultimately adopted, it will certainly bring about change, but no one should be under the illusion that this is a message of reconciliation, or that the American people as a whole will rally around these ideas. Ask George McGovern.

The Obama program has been attacked with the slogan "Where's the beef?" This attack is misplaced. There's plenty of beef; the problem is that it's very well-aged.

- Peter J. Wallison is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at AEI.


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