Obama vs. Clinton….Again

OBAMA vs. CLINTON….AGAIN….It’s possible — likely, even — that everyone is tired of conversations about whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would be more effective if they win the presidency. That’s doubly true since it’s essentially unknowable at this point. But without really taking sides on this, I want to tease out one more thing on this subject, since I think it’s a key question for liberal voters this year.

First off, a disclaimer: I believe that both candidates are (a) not only electable, but highly likely to win against any Republican opponent, and (b) close enough on policy issues that their differences are far less important than their ability to get things done. I know that not everyone agrees about this, but this is my starting point.

So who would be more effective at moving a progressive agenda forward once they got elected? There are two basic things to think about:

  • The ability to tap into the zeitgeist and sway public opinion in the direction you want it to go. In recent history, think of Ronald Reagan as the best exponent of this style of governing.

  • The ability to manipulate Congress to pass your agenda. Think LBJ as the master of this aspect of the presidency.

So who would do better on these two measures? Obama, obviously, has a tremendous ability to give inspiring speeches. He’s far more persuasive than Hillary on this score. On the downside, however, his speeches don’t tend to overtly push a progressive agenda as much as Hillary’s do.

How would this work out in practice? Hard to say. One possibility is that Obama would get everyone inspired, but not inspired about a specifically progressive agenda. That would be bad. A second possibility, however, is that he’d manage to convince the public that his liberal agenda isn’t really “liberal” — a word that’s been successfully demonized by the right — but just common sense. So he gets the public support he wants, but he gets it by repositioning liberal ideas not as ideology, but as post-partisan problem solving. That would be good. The question is, will it work? Or is the direct approach more effective?

Congress is a different kettle of fish, and obviously a lot depends on just what kind of majority the new president has to work with. I think everyone’s assumption here is that Obama’s personal charm and readiness to listen would help him hive off at least a few moderate Republicans to pass his legislative agenda. Hillary, by contrast, is someone who knows how to throw elbows when she needs to, and she’d play a tougher, more conventional form of politics: a bit of hardball here and a bit of logrolling there, a process that might not be pretty but can be effective. And the surprising fact is that she’s demonstrated a remarkably strong ability in the Senate to work with Republicans, most of whom generally trust her to keep her word and do what she says she’ll do.

So: overt appeals to the public to support a progressive agenda, or a stealth appeal to rebrand progressivism? Personal charm and empathy in small meetings, or a willingness to play old style politics? Which would be more effective?

I’m not sure. I lean toward the Hillary approach because I think the Obama approach only works when there’s already a real groundswell of support for significant change (as in the 30s, 60s, and 80s, for example) — and as much as I hate to say it, I just don’t see that at the moment. I know the pundit class talks endlessly about the public’s hunger for change and its disgust with the politics of polarization, but aside from a nearly unanimous desire to get rid of George Bush it seems to me that the basic partisan divisions we’ve had for the past three decades are mostly still there. It’s sort of like negative campaigning, which still works great no matter how often the public says it’s sick of it.

But maybe I’m just blinkered. Maybe there’s a stronger hunger for fundamental change than I’m giving the public credit for. I’m ready to be convinced in comments.