OK, I just got done watching Sen. Barack Obama's five-and-a-half minute campaign video on his brand new Obama Exploratory Committee website. (Obama filed papers to create a 2008 exploratory committee earlier today.)
After a bit from his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, the video features an unnamed woman, probably in her early 40s, saying that she likes how Obama seems to be "speaking from his heart." Then it has a man, about the same age, saying that Obama "gives you a sense of hope." And then it pretty much goes on like that for another five minutes, about what you might expect from a presidential campaign in its early stages.
Of course, what I'm interested in hearing is what a President Obama would do about entitlements, taxes, spending, tradeall the stuff that would make for a rather boring campaign commercial. And I am sure that if and when Obama makes his presidential bid official, he will have all sorts of detailed position papers for my wonky perusal. Until then, though, I'm left rummaging through his U.S. Senate votes, speeches, and book, The Audacity of Hope, for clues to his economic philosophy. Here is what I found so far:
Globalization and Trade. These are decisive issues among Democrats. Clinton-era free trade policies now seem out of favor, especially after the 2006 midterms, when "fair trade" seemed a popular issue for Dems. Where does Obama come down? Like most Democrats in Congress he voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005 because it didn't do enough to protect U.S. workers. (He did, though, vote for the Oman Trade Agreement.) Yet in a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece explaining his vote, Obama hardly sounded like some stereotypical trade-bashing union leader:
I wish I could vote in favor of CAFTA. In the end, I believe that expanding trade and breaking down barriers between countries is good for our economy and for our security, for American consumers and American workers. ... We also shouldn't kid ourselves into believing that voting against trade agreements will stop globalization. ... Globalization is not someone's political agenda. It is a technological revolution that is fundamentally changing the world's economy, producing winners and losers along the way. The question is not whether we can stop it, but how we respond to it. It's not whether we should protect our workers from competition, but what we can do to fully enable them to compete against workers all over the world.
Indeed, Obama has often said he talks regularly with former Clinton Treasury Secretary and globalization advocate Robert Rubin about trade and how it's affecting workers. Rather than erect trade barriers, Rubin has pushed for more policies to help workers hurt by trade. And in his book, Obama does the same, advocating greater federal efforts to retrain workerssuch as through flexible education accountsand to cushion the blow for workers who lose their jobs in our high-velocity economy.
"We could also try the concept of wage insurance, which provides 50 percent of the difference between a worker's old wage and his new wage for anywhere from one to two years," he writes.
Taxes. The youthful Obama may well want to campaign as the next JFK"passing the torch to a new generation" and all thatbut it doesn't look like he will be the tax cutter Kennedy was. In The Audacity of Hope, he writes about a meeting with billionaire investor Warren Buffett and approvingly quotes Buffett at length railing against President Bush's income tax cuts, investment tax cuts, and proposal to get rid of the estate tax.
A few pages later, writing about trends such as perceived wage stagnation and the growth in income inequality, Obama concludes that President Clinton's tax hikes "slowed them down a bit" while Bush's tax cuts "made them worse."
Candidate Obama seems certain to run against extending the Bush tax cuts due to expire in 2010. (During his two years in the U.S. Senate, he has already voted against extending the capital gain tax cut, as well as voting to immediately repeal it.) He does, though, have a few kind words for President Reagan's 1981 tax cuts, which slashed the top marginal rate to 50 percent from 70 percent, saying that the old sky-high rate did "distort investment decisions."
Entitlement Reform. Reforming Social Security is a controversial issue in Washington. But it's no biggie to Obama. "The problems with the Social Security trust fund are real but manageable. In 1983, when facing a similar problem, Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill got together and shaped a bipartisan plan that stabilized the system for the next 60 years. There's no reason we can't do the same today." (That 1983 plan, by the way, increased payroll taxes and raised the retirement age.)
And while against diverting tax revenue into private retirement accounts, Obama does mention the idea of a "universal 401(k)" planwhere the government matches your contributionas an add-on to Social Security.
And like most Democrats, Obama is for universal healthcare. He would get experts to design a basic, high-quality plan and then allow anyone to purchase this model government plan or a comparable rival plan though private insurers. In other words, no government-run single-payer health plan. He would also require the healthcare industry to completely digitize all its records to cut costs and errors.