Saturday, July 12, 2008

Presidents, Knowledge, Worldview, and Age

Now that the general election is upon us, let me say that I'm actually reasonably pleased with the two candidates we have. McCain is a moderate republican with a history of bipartisanship (something he should be emphasizing in this election more than he is, but that's another discussion), and Obama preaches a message of bridging differences and including republicans in his administration - a pragmatic, goal-focused approach that takes input from all comers (incidentally, this is why current positions aren't "backpedaling" - Barack's just shifting the emphasis to those positions he holds which are centrist, rather than his democratic policies - smart pragmatism and selective emphasis, but not flip-flopping).

Having said that I'm generally happy with the candidates, let me raise a brief point - I'm not sure whether this is attributable to age, political inclinations, length of time served in national office, general worldview, or overall education/intelligence... but one major reason that I prefer Obama to McCain is his flexibility and the fact that he seems much more "in touch" with the rapidly changing conditions of the world we live in (for a good recent piece from CEPR, see this link). On the one hand this is a domestic point - energy policy, economic policy, education policy, health policy, etc. all need to be addressed after eight years of relative neglect - and Obama has a fairly substantial understanding of economics (partly training from his international relations undergraduate, partly inherited ability from his father - a Harvard-trained economist from Kenya). There's also points here about the increasingly multi-cultural, multi-religious society we live in, but I'll leave that alone for now.

On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, this is a significant foreign policy point. It's true that McCain has been around the block more than a few times on foreign policy. But we need to consider the context of most of his experience and how valuable it really is. For most of John McCain's life, and a significant portion (if not most) of his time in office, we lived in a Cold War paradigm, and foreign policy was dominated by a Cold War, superpower-focused, quasi-colonial mindset. Experience is valuable, yes, but it also shapes the way in which we think, and we can have trouble adapting as we age (I'm not saying this to be insulting, only as a fact of life to be considered). This depth of experience leaves McCain vulnerable to assessing current problems from a framework that is finally past its shelf life. Its arguable that the Cold war mindset was useful in the 1990s transition era, but the current players now are China, India, Brazil, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Russia... and Russia is far from the most important.

Obama is young only by the standards of the presidency, by any other standard he is a middle-aged man (forty-six). He's not a starry-eyed youth, someone fresh out of grad school. Even more telling - his advisors are well-seasoned, flexible foreign policy experts who have been around the executive office for eight years... nearly all are Clinton veterans who guided us through a difficult transition decade with remarkable success. I have faith that these advisors can show similar flexibility, intelligence, and pragmatism again. But, put simply, I have my doubts about McCain.

It really is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.