Too Clever by Half?

10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So what is the connection between Barack Obama's core beliefs, his campaign advisers, and his rather lackluster performance since Denver?

Last night, I had an intriguing encounter with Cass Sunstein, a member of Obama's kitchen cabinet. The occasion was the fall kickoff event at Boston's JFK Presidential Library, where Sunstein, former Clinton official Joe Nye, and I, had been invited to discuss "Transformative Presidencies."

Sunstein is perhaps America's pre-eminent liberal law professor, having just moved to Harvard after a long career at the University of Chicago (and having just married fellow Harvard eminence Samantha Power.) Sunstein was also a founding editor of the Prospect, and we have published his brilliant essays on several occasions.

Sunstein was quoted in David Leonhardt's recent New York Times magazine piece on Obama-nomics, to the effect that Obama had absorbed a fair amount of Chicago free-market economics, which in turn blended with his own wish to bridge differences.

Here is part of what Leonhardt wrote, describing Obama's "post-partisan" impulses:

Compared with many other Democrats, Obama simply is more comfortable with the apparent successes of laissez-faire economics.

Sunstein, now on the faculty at Harvard, has a name for this approach: "I like to think of him as a 'University of Chicago' Democrat."

It's a useful label. Today's Democratic consensus has moved the party to the left, and on issues like inequality and climate change, Obama appears willing to be even more aggressive than many fellow Democrats. From this standpoint, he's a true liberal. Yet he also says he believes that there are significant parts of Reaganism worth preserving.

(Er, exactly which parts of Reaganism might those be?)

On the other hand, according to Leonhardt, "[I]n Obama's view, the risks to market-based capitalism now have more to do with too little regulation than too much."

Well, yes. The policy of letting markets run riot has wrecked the financial system and ravaged the economic security of most Americans. And if the Democratic candidate does not at least know that, then he is in a deep coma.

Leonhardt went to great length to explain that Obama-nomics was something new, something post liberal and conservative, one part free-market, one part regulated market. But there is in fact nothing new about this view. With different nuances, it describes the view of every Democrat since Roosevelt.

No Democrat has been for socialism, and no Democrat has been for laissez-faire. The vexing political and policy questions are how much free market, and how much government intervention, and of what kind. That's what distinguishes, say, a Roosevelt Democrat from a Clinton or a Carter Democrat.

I asked Sunstein if he had been accurately quoted, and he confirmed that had. And Sunstein went on to explain to the Kennedy Library audience that Obama in fact was a "minimalist-as-visionary." By that, Sunstein explained, he meant that Obama hoped to bring about large-scale change, but without frontally challenging or insulting people who held views different from his own.

A University of Chicago Democrat evidently embraces some of what is dear to Republicans, but turns to financial regulation or to social outlay to help the market along. Still he has great respect for markets for people who believe in them. But not in all circumstances. On the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand, on the fourth hand...zzzzzzzz.

It's hard, ultimately, to know how much of all this is really Obama, and how much is Leonhardt and Sunstein reading their own views into Obama.

In any event, the last thing Obama needs right now is to revert to law professor. For this may be the kind of elegant distinction that fuels debates in Chicago seminar rooms--but judging by recent events on the campaign trail, it is far too effete for the rough and tumble of politics.

America's working families are hurting, and they crave someone who will be their pocketbook champion--someone who can explain passionately why right wing politics have caused wide distress and are unlikely to produce improvement. If swing voters don't get that clear message from the Democrat, they will turn to the maverick patriot who did hard time in Hanoi and the small town governor-mom who knows how to shoot a moose.

Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect and Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, has just published Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (Chelsea Green). He is blogging daily about the election and the economic crisis at