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Barack Obama, with his big victory in the Iowa caucuses, has done a terrific job positioning himself as the Democrats' candidate of change. In his "closing argument" speech a few days before the voting, Obama repeated the word no fewer than 18 times.
But look closely at Obama's economic policy platform and what you see is pretty standard Democratic stuff. There is no dramatic plan to reform the tax system or move the nation's trade or retirement security policies in a fundamentally different direction. His health reform plan would restructure the system we have today, but in ways not very different from what most Democrats have been talking about for a decade or more.
There is the idea of Obama, which reflects the sort of post-racial, post-partisan image that appeals to many voters. Then, in sharp contrast, there is his surprisingly conventional policy agenda. Sure, Obama pledges change from President Bush. But every Democrat, and even some Republicans, promise that.
Take his tax plank, for example. Obama vows to roll back the President Bush's 2001 tax cuts and use some of the money to create a new "making work pay tax credit" of $500 for singles and $1000 for couples. He'd enact an above-the-line credit for homeowners who don't itemize, and a credit for seniors earning less than $50,000. His enthusiasm for tossing out tax credits to various constituencies hardly represents change. It is, in fact, a throwback to the (Bill) Clinton Administration, which made such targeted tax breaks into an art form.
Perhaps more interesting is what Obama is not proposing. He has no plan for fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax—a $1 trillion problem over the next decade that cannot be ignored. And, like Hillary Clinton, he is mute on tax reform. After House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) proposed a major tax restructuring plan, Obama's response echoed Clinton: "I don’t know all the details of it, and I may not agree with some of it," he said, bravely.
Obama is being just as cautious about the deficit. He would enforce pay-as-you-go budget rules, reduce pork barrel spending, and end wasteful government programs. These are all fine ideas, but they are hardly examples of out-of-the-box thinking. Same with retirement policy. Other than raising the income ceiling for Social Security payroll taxes and a government match for the savings of some working-class families (another old Bill Clinton proposal), Obama is largely quiescent.
This may be smart politics for a Presidential hopeful. After all, each of these issues is political dynamite, and rolling out truly bold ideas means taking big electoral risks. On the other hand, isn't that what "change" candidates are supposed to do?
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