Commentary Magazine


Krugman Is Stumped, Too

Hey, it’s not just Republican surrogates who are making the point that Barack Obama is “unprincipled and opportunistic.” Joining fellow New York Times columnist David Brooks on the list of those Obama has utterly confused, Paul Krugman debates with himself whether Obama is more like Ronald Reagan (an ideological, transformative politician) or Bill Clinton ( a poll-driven prgamatist). He writes:

The candidate’s defenders argue that he’s just being pragmatic — that he needs to do whatever it takes to win, and win big, so that he has the power to effect major change. But critics argue that by engaging in the same “triangulation and poll-driven politics” he denounced during the primary, Mr. Obama actually hurts his election prospects, because voters prefer candidates who take firm stands. In any case, what about after the election? The Reagan-Clinton comparison suggests that a candidate who runs on a clear agenda is more likely to achieve fundamental change than a candidate who runs on the promise of change but isn’t too clear about what that change would involve. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Mr. Obama really is a centrist, after all.

It is remarkable that now two savvy guys like Krugman and Brooks can’t figure out what Obama is. And neither seems to be playing coy to make a rhetorical point — they really don’t know.

But maybe that’s no accident. Obama has told us there is no there, there. In his book he wrote: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” So perhaps searching for Obama’s “core” is a fool’s errand. He is glib and clever and seized upon a clever formulation (Agent of Change) to attract young and idealistic people longing for meaning. But perhaps that is all there is.

We don’t know how he will act under pressure and in real circumstances demanding definitive action because he has never developed, stuck with and acted upon a fixed set of principles. So voters will have to figure out for themselves which polar opposite vision of Obama is the real one. The fact that both could be in contention is startling and sobering.