Obama’s Secret: Principled Transformation

Why Obama defeated Clinton is a curious and fascinating topic.

Most of the analyses that I’ve read point out his superior fundraising ability, or his campaign team’s brilliant execution of a 50-state campaign plan that involved using caucus states to run up his delegate totals. Others point towards his soaring eloquence, or his status as a “post-racial” candidate.

While these seem correct, they are also insufficient.

It is also insufficient to point to the shortcomings of his opponent’s campaign, or even to simply say, “People like and trust Barack, and they don’t like or trust Hillary.”

It seems to me that when you see a cataclysmic event like the defeat of an overwhelming favorite with nearly every factor in her favor, it’s important to identify the true underlying factors.

My conclusion is that while the two Democratic candidates presented few policy distinctions, they represented two utterly opposite paradigms for leadership. Obama’s paradigm offered a much better fit for the national mood, and it is this paradigm that is responsible for his victory, though his considerable skills as a candidate certainly helped.

There are two key distinctions between Clinton and Obama’s approaches.

1) Principled vs. Positional

In terms of beliefs, Obama focused on principles, and Clinton on positions.

Since 1972, politics in the United States has ossified into a hardened set of opposition positions. Pro-choice versus pro-life. Gun control vs. the NRA. Evolution vs. Creationism.

What these all have in common is that the opposing positions view the situation as a confrontational, zero-sum game. And guess what, neither side is ever going to win over its opponents.

While this polarization has provided a short-term boost to certain politicians, these have generally been pyrrhic victories. Pete Wilson used Prop 187 to tap into anti-immigration resentment and win the governorship of California, only to destroy the long-term future of the Republican Party in his state (hint: which population group is growing the fastest?). Karl Rove used wedge issues to drive the re-election of George W. Bush, and may well have done the same thing to the Republican Party on a national level.

In contrast, focusing on principles offers the opportunity for (though not the guarantee of) progress. Obama has focused relentlessly on common principles, rather than the right and wrong of particular positions. It is also for this reason that he has been able to win over the Obama Republicans, who disagree violently with his notional positions, but feel that Obama will act according to shared principles.

It is small wonder that young people, who have no desire to continue manning the trenches for the previous generation’s stalemate, are drawn to Obama’s focus on principles. It is also small wonder that the older generation, who can’t stand the thought of abandoning their long-held positions , have tried to label Obama an appeaser or ingenue. To simply “abandon” the work of decades, including heart-rending sacrifices and stomach-churning compromises, is a difficult pill for anyone to swallow, regardless of their political affiliation.

Generals always fight the last war. Abandoning the trenches isn’t surrender, it’s simply sanity.

2) Transformation vs. Transaction

The second major distinction, closely related to the conflict between principles and positions, is that of taking a transformational versus a transactional approach to getting things done.

We have come to think of politics as transactional. Each bill that makes its way through Congressional committees is highly transactional. Give me this program, and I’ll vote for your bill. I campaigned for you last year, and now it’s time for you to pay me back.

This is the hard-headed reality that most accept, and most of the time, the majority is correct. Incremental change and compromise are generally the most effective approach. It is this kind of political horse-trading that is second nature to Clinton.

Yet backroom deals aren’t always the best approach. In a time of crisis or change, the transformational approach gets more done. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan all took bold transformational actions that their opponents (and many of their own party) thought naive at best, and were generally considered deranged and/or traitorous.

Obama has famously tapped into the desire for change, but dig a little deeper, and the shift reflects a desire to get away from the transactional, incremental approach of the past 20 years.

Clinton took her own stab at transformational politics when she spearheaded the campaign for single-payer healthcare in the 1990s, but her failure caused her to conclude that transformation doesn’t work, and to focus instead on transactions. “Solutions for America,” to quote one of her many slogans during the campaign. Hand out enough benefits to enough targeted interest groups, and you win.

The problem is that Clinton drew the wrong lessons. As I’m fond of telling entrepreneurs who object to trying something because it failed before, “I know it didn’t work, but that’s because you did it wrong. Let me show you how to do it the right way.”

Clinton’s healthcare campaign was arrogant and imposed from on high; rather than concluding that she needed to change her style and governing philosophy, she concluded instead that she should focus on small victories.

America is sick of being patronized, and sick of being bribed. It’s becoming harder and harder to pander to interest groups because the Internet ensures that anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

Clinton learned this to her dismay, when her attempts to promote an ill-conceived gas tax holiday fell on deaf ears. The American people have decided that they are too smart to fall for short-sighted bribery (at least outside of West Virginia and Kentucky).

Can Principled Transformation Save America?

No one really knows. As I keep reminding folks, when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, he ran as a compassionate conservative, who had a sterling record of working with Texas Democrats to push through important reforms. At the time, he seemed like a principled and transformational leader. In some sense, he still is, though most of the country now disagrees with his principles and the transformations that his administration has wrought.

It’s safer to fight from dug-in positions, and to seek small, safe victories.

But times of crisis call for bold action, and I, like the rest of America, am pretty sick of business as usual. Ultimately, Obama’s victory came because the voters believed in his integrity, felt that they shared his principles, and that the country needed a good kick in the pants. Only time will tell whether he proves a liberal Reagan or a W.

I’ll conclude with excerpts from the graduation speech Obama delivered this weekend for the Wesleyan Class of 2008, which illustrate perfectly his quest for principled transformation:

“You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.

You know, Ted Kennedy often tells a story about the fifth anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps. He was there, and he asked one of the young Americans why he had chosen to volunteer. And the man replied, “Because it was the first time someone asked me to do something for my country.”

I don’t know how many of you have been asked that question, but after today, you have no excuses. I am asking you, and if I should have the honor of serving this nation as President, I will be asking again in the coming years. We may disagree on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready, and eager, and up to the challenge.”

3 thoughts on “Obama’s Secret: Principled Transformation

  1. That was a good read, Chris.

  2. Chris,

    What are the principles that Obama is promising? What are the common principles he is focusing on, other than “change”?

    So far, he has been unable to unite large constituencies of the Democratic party, such as white, working class voters. He talks about bringing people together, but he wasn’t involved in a single important bipartisan effort in the Senate. Instead, he maintained age-old liberal positions on every basic issue.

    And I found the excerpt from his Wesleyan speech off-putting. “The common good” is a phrase which makes me squirm. How does the libertarian inside of you reply to Obama’s remarks?

  3. Anonymous

    Ben, libertarians and/or Libertarians wouldn’t shill for a power-hungry grifter like Obama. Only a hard-core leftist would. What is libertarian about a big(-ger) government proponent who explicitly calls for higher taxes, more welfare programs, is anti-business, and aligns himself with Marxists and neo-anarchists? “Change?” Pfft. Obama is about more of the failed policies that the “progressive,” “reality-based” “community” has been shrilly screeching about for 40 years. No thanks.


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