Obama's change: minor or major?
Our policies will change: Will our values, too?
Barack Obama has sheathed himself in a single word: change. And yet uncertainty lingers as to its genuine meaning, both for him and for America.Skip to next paragraph
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The two fundamental ingredients to politics are values and policies. Every policy manifests some set of values and principles. For instance, the policy of a minimum wage embodies a judgment on the value of fairness. With this in mind, political change can take one of two main forms. It can overhaul both a community's values and its policies (Change 1). Or it can keep the community's values, but modify its policies (Change 2).
Change 1 is revolutionary. It alters a society's moral foundation, which in turn reshapes its policies; everything is different. Communist government in America would constitute this sort of change.
Change 2 is subtler and distinctly American. A supporter of Change 2 might argue that American values – those enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – are good, but that they are not reflected in national policies. This is Martin Luther King's style of change. The civil rights movement, in its effective forms, did not argue that American values were flawed, but rather that the system needed to more fully embrace them.
Americans, generally, fear Change 1. We distrust any notion that we should alter the liberal values of the Founding Fathers. We are conservative liberals.
The issue today is whether Mr. Obama offers Change 1 or Change 2.
Obama, unsurprisingly, argues that he offers Change 2. He presents himself as a steady pragmatist who will bring reason and cool judgment to the White House. He implies that his policies – on taxation, diplomacy, energy, and healthcare – are the products of prudent reflection on Bush's failures, not on any abstract philosophy that conflicts with that of Madison and Jefferson. He portrays his vision as nonideological and thus embraceable by a grand coalition of Americans. Toward that end, he promises to calm the partisan tone of Washington politics.
During the presidential campaign, John McCain's supporters disagreed, often pronouncing Obama's politics radical, socialist, or otherwise "un-American."