Long Or Short On Policy?

Steve Benen takes the Associated Press’s reporter Charles Babbington to task for calling Obama’s acceptance speech sketchy on the details of the policies Obama would pursue as President:

Babbington: ‘Barack Obama, whose campaign theme is “change we can believe in,” promised Thursday to “spell out exactly what that change would mean.” But instead of dwelling on specifics, he laced the crowning speech of his long campaign with the type of rhetorical flourishes that Republicans mock and the attacks on John McCain that Democrats cheer.’

Benen: This is utter nonsense. Obama detailed his policy vision in a way few convention speeches of the modern era have. What, exactly, did the AP’s Charles Babbington expect Obama to do? Break out a chalk board and some pie charts? Start reading white papers?

If Benen is right and Babbington is wrong, it’s a very legitimate criticism of the reporting that gets fed to at least half the newspapers in the country. So let’s take a look at the actual policy proposals in the speech itself, paring out all the rhetoric and all the swipes at Republicans and Senator McCain (and also removing the acknowledgments that McCain is a nice guy who means well and has an exemplary record of military service, since the focus is on the specificity of policy proposals):

Taxes: “I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America. I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the start-ups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow. I will cut taxes – cut taxes – for 95% of all working families.”

I don’t believe he will actually do this; he may or may not even try. But the question here is did he propose a specific policy to pursue? This seems specific enough for a speech of this nature. I don’t expect him to quote from his proposed revision to the IRC or to specifically describe when a business stops being “small” and starts having to pay capital gains taxes again. I do expect him to describe the goals for the tax reforms he promises to pursue. This satisfies my expectations for specificity; it sets forth policy priorities and his vision for what a better tax code would look like.

Energy: “[I]n ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East. … As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I’ll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I’ll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I’ll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy – wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.”

Again, my suspension of disbelief is challenged (regarding the oil part; I pretty much believe him on the alternative energy proposals) but that’s not the point. The question is specificity of policy proposals. Breaking this down, here’s what I see — subsidies to auto companies (what some would sneeringly call “corporate welfare”) for creating hybrid and alternative-fuel cars, and subsidies to consumers to artificially lower the price of those vehicles. Government seed money for wind, solar, nuclear, and low-sulfur coal power plants. These are appropriately specific proposals that we can have a good idea of what Obama is talking about.

How we’re going to be “independent” of Middle Eastern oil in ten years, however, is never defined, much less specified. So I rule it’s a a split decision of specificity of energy policy — some specifics, but not enough to fulfill the promises of the policy platform.

Education: “ I’ll invest in early childhood education. I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability. And we will keep our promise to every young American – if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.”

Higher pay for teachers — well, how much? How many teachers are an “army”? What kind of “support” will they get? What form will “higher standards” and “more accountability” take — more reliance on standardized testing like the No Child Left Behind Act? And the public service for tuition bargain, note, indicates that you will be able to “afford” a college education, but does not promise to actually pay for it. You have to read between the lines here to realize he’s talking about loans, not scholarships. My ruling here is “short on specifics.”

Health Care: “Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American. If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don’t, you’ll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves.I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.”

Very short on specifics. That’s not to say that a more detailed plan hasn’t been offered previously (although I haven’t seen it myself). Health care reform policies are inherently complex and difficult to explain. As close as I can infer from the language used here, that means that insurance companies will have to offer coverage similar to the plan offered to membes of Congress. He implies that this will be “available” to people who cannot otherwise afford that kind of coverage, but a Cadillac plan is expensive and without going to a single-payer system (which means no Cadillacs for anyone) it’s hard to see how such a thing is possible. But again, the plausibility of the promise is not what we’re really looking for here — the issue is that the policy itself is described in only vague terms.

Labor: “Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for a sick child or ailing parent. … And now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have exactly the same opportunities as your sons.

I have no idea what he’s going to do here. We already have FMLA, and it’s easily the most-abused part of contemporary employment law. Is he going to expand FMLA? Make FMLA time partially paid, either by employers or the government? He doesn’t say. On the equal pay for women issue, what more can he do that the Equal Pay Act has not already done? He certainly doesn’t say what that might be. I rule these “not specific policy proposals,” this is just rhetoric, or at best, a highly-generalized set of normative policy goals.

Bankruptcy: “
Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws, so that your pensions are protected ahead of CEO bonuses…”

Social Security: “[Now is the] time to protect Social Security for future generations.”

These two were in the same sentence. Only one specific policy goal is described, which is reducing the priority of CEO bonuses as opposed to pension plans in Chapter 11 reorganizations. Absolutely nothing is proposed for Social Security. There is one specific bankruptcy reform proposal, albeit one with relatively little effect but some populist appeal to it. There is nothing at all proposed for Social Security.

Balanced Budget: “I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime – by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less… .”

This, of course, has been my big concern about Obama for a long time. He does not really specify, to my satisfaction, how he’ll “pay for every time” of this ambitious expansion of the government’s role in this laundry list of mostly nebulous policy goals. But he really couldn’t do that in a format like his acceptance speech. It would be appropriate for him to make reference to a more detailed policy proposal available elsewere; he suggests some general tactics (“closing corproate loopholes and tax havens”) but does not even attempt to identify “programs that no longer work” or indicate how programs “we do need” can be made to “work better and cost less.” Nor does he seem to allow for the possibility that a needed program also does not work, which seems very often to be the case — Medicare and Social Security are two examples that come right off the top of my head. I haven’t seen any white papers or projected budgets, but I admit I haven’t looked, either. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that they exist and they’re both coherent and detailed. Nevertheless, the policy proposal in the speech, even assuming the existence of this other reference material, is set forth at a very high level of generality and I can’t do better than a “split decision” ruling for specificity here.

Iraq: “And today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush Administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79 billion surplus while we’re wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war. … I will end this war in Iraq responsibly.

This is more of a rhetorical swipe at his opposition than a policy proposal, but within this statement is a proposal for a timeframe structured withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He doesn’t specifiy what the time frame is but he doesn’t exactly have to; it seems that the current Administration, the McCain campaign, the Iraqis, and likely his campaign all are looking at something like the end of 2011, and everyone involved is quick to point out that this is a provisional date subject to change based on future events. So that’s a specific enough proposal about Iraq that I’m satisfied with it.

Terrorism: “You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq. … [I will] finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

To be fair to Obama, you really can’t be very specific about anti-terrorism policy in public. You can’t say, “I’ll increase the number of covert operations and infiltrators by 62% over the next three years.” Nor can you say “I will remedy the insufficient air and ground coverage in sector 12-53 of the Northwestern Province in Pakistan with additional Airborne Rangers and Blackhawk air support for them.” So this may well be the best Obama can do on this point — he will divert resources away from Iraq and into anti-terrorism activities in other theaters of operations with the goal of eliminating al Qaeda and the Taliban. This isn’t very specific, but there is no practical way for it to be specific.

By the way, where have I been that Bush was dilatory in going after al Qaeda? Is there anything Bush would like better than bin Laden’s head on a pike to show the world? If there is, I can’t think of it. But I stray from my purpose again.

Other Foreign Policy: “
As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home. … I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing … .

Split decision at best here; this is actually mostly rhetoric and statements upon which no one can reasonably disagree. The question is not whether we use diplomatic efforts to curb Russian aggression or Iranian nuclear proliferation. The question is what else do we do besides sending diplomats out to persuade? What backs up that persuasion? Nothing is offered and I hope he’s got more up his sleeve than “mediation.”

Surprisingly given my generally cynical tone, I think “restore our moral standing” is an important policy goal. We cannot go it alone when addressing these kinds of problems. They are international in scope and require international solutions, and that means having the suasion to get our allies and trading partners to go along with our plans and solutions — and being willing to listen to their ideas, too. It’s very difficult to specify how “moral standing” is restored, but it’s wise of Obama to note that it has been diminished of late and pointout out that a dramatic change of leadership will move the process forward.

So I’m going to say a “split decision” on specifics for foreign policy.

Other Stuff: “We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.”

In a search for common ground, Obama steps into dangerous turf looking at abortion, guns, gays, and immigration. But here, again, we find a mixture of specific proposals and generalized rhetoric. Obama does not say how he will reduce unwanted pregnancies. He does suggest that AK-47s and similar weapons should be subject to greater restriction. He proposes hospital visitation rights for the lovers of sick gays and lesbians. He suggests that we maintain humanitarian visas for alien mothers of citizen children and enforcement of citizenship laws for employers. There are some solid specifics within the rhetoric here, although they are not particularly ambitious. He barely address some issues at all, like environmental policy and medical research; and was completely silent on other things like China, religion, the trade deficit, drugs, or Supreme Court appointments.

So who was right, Babbington or Benen? Obama was reasonably specific on tax policy; alternative energy policy; Iraq and some other foreign policy; and and a handful of social policy issues. He was not specific about oil independence; education; reform of the labor laws, bankruptcy, or social security sytems; abortion; or balancing the budget. He talked about some issues that do not lend themselves to specificity in the first place and implied that for some of these things, he has been specific in other media, which I cannot readily verify or refute at the moment.

The winner in the Babbinton-Benen specificity debate seems to be “whoever you want to win.” If you like Obama and are favorably disposed towards him, you think Benen is right that the speech contained a strong policy content. If you are not favorably disposed towards Obama and are disinclined to vote for him, then you probably think Babbington’s indictment of rhetoric over policy was spot-on.

For me, it’s a split decision.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.