Why Obama’s Not a N00b: He Takes Advice from Those More Experienced than Him

March 6, 2008

One major reason for these differences is the candidate himself. Cutler told me Obama is adamant about consulting bona fide experts. “The staff kept saying, ‘What he wants to know is that he’s really talking to experts in the field. When you go see him, you know, make it clear that you’re an expert.'” When it comes to economics, it’s very difficult to achieve expertise without an academic background. It’s a field that prizes rigorous results, supported by reams of painstakingly sifted data. (Though Reich was labor secretary, he was trained as a lawyer, not an economist.) Cutler, for example, has made his name with a series of detailed econometric studies suggesting that, contrary to the conventional wisdom on the left, Americans actually have quite a bit to show for the trillions they spend on health care.

For their part, the Obama wonks tend to be inductive–working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. One typical Goolsbee brainchild is something called an automatic tax return. The idea is that, if you had no tax deductions or freelance income the previous year, the IRS would send you a tax return that was already filled out. As long as you accepted the government’s accounting, you could just sign it and mail it back. Goolsbee estimates this small innovation could save hundreds of millions of man-hours spent filling out tax forms, and billions of dollars in tax-preparation fees.

Think of the contrast here as the difference between science-fiction writers and engineers. Reich and Galston are the kinds of people who’d sketch out the idea for time travel in a moment of inspiration. Goolsbee et al. could rig up the DeLorean that would actually get you back to 1955.

The second difference is that the Obama hands tend to feel less hemmed in by establishment opinion. As one Obama adviser puts it, “Democrats want to be just a little bit different from Republicans, but not so different that they get attacked for being weak.” Like Hamilton, the Obamanauts generally reject this calculus–not because they favor some radical alternative, but because clinging to received foreign policy wisdom can preclude highly practical courses of action.

– From The Audacity of Data by Noam Scheiber

This article is a really great read on how Obama surrounds himself with experienced mentors. Which may account for his fluffy speeches. But it also accounts for the fact that his fluffy speeches have hard backing (therefore the title of the piece).

Pragmatism seems to be the way to go. And until we get a real, honest PhD scientist into the White House, Obama will have to do.

Now he just has to beat Hillary…

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