The Soft Pander

Barack Obama doesn’tsay he would scrap the consent decree under which the federal government has overseen theTeamsters for the past two decades. He just says that he’d start to thinkabout possibly scrapping it.  This maneuver—the soft pander—has been astaple of the 2008 campaign, particularly for Obama. Don’t make any promises;just hint at them. Load them up with so many ifs that you won’t getaccused of breaking them when things don’t quite work out.

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that Obama got the Teamsters endorsement after telling them hesupported scaling down a federal oversight policy instituted years ago to crackdown on the union’s mob ties. But on Good Morning America , Obama deniedmaking a “blanket commitment.” He said, “The union has done a terrific jobcleaning house” and promised he’d “examine” the issue aspresident. The Obama campaign and the Teamsters both say the candidate hasn’tcontradicted himself, and that anyway no president would have the power to liftthe decree. According to Teamster spokesman Bret Caldwell, “closure to theconsent decree will come through the legal process, not politics.” If that’sthe case, then Obama’s blowing smoke when he promises to “examine” the issue.Hillary Clinton is doing the same when she says it’s time to “turn the page” on the decree. The trick is to give the impression you’d shake thingsup without making any concrete promises about how.

The candidates took a similar approach to NAFTA. As thecrucial Ohiovote approached, Obama and Clinton didn’t promise to abolish the tradeagreement. They said they would “renegotiate” it, which could mean as little astweaking labor and environmental standards while leaving incentives fordownsizing and outsourcing intact. When Obama’s economic adviser reportedlyurged Canadian officials not to take Obama’s rhetoric too seriously, the NAFTApurists pounced.

Same with the debate over withdrawal from Iraq. Noone really thinks Obama could withdraw all combat troops within 18 months.When Samantha Power, an advisor to Obama on foreign policy, called Obama’s withdrawal plan a “best case scenario”—an honest acknowledgment that noone knows what Iraqwill look like in 2009—she was forced out. (Calling Clintona “monster” didn’t help.) Here the fudge factor isn’t—indeed, may not be—utteredout loud. But everyone knows it’s there.

Vague campaign promises are nothing new, but Obama haselevated them to a fine art. Maybe he might possibly think about consideringwhether or not he should hypothetically be more decisive. Or maybe not.