Image: Barack Obama
Charles Rex Arbogast  /  AP
Barack Obama presents himself as being above politics, congenitally bipartisan. But his tone on economics has the same mild populism as Hillary Clinton's, Portfolio's Matthew Johnson writes.
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updated 2/26/2008 7:12:01 PM ET 2008-02-27T00:12:01
Commentary

It's a great phrase: the narcissism of small differences. Freud used it to explain group madness, suggesting that our greatest hatred is often directed at those most like us. "Closely related races keep one another at arm's length," he wrote. "The South German cannot endure the North German, the Englishman casts every kind of aspersion upon the Scot, the Spaniard despises the Portuguese."

The phrase could apply to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and their wide-eyed legions. Certainly, when compared with the differences among the Republican presidential contenders we've seen this year — Mike Huckabee, oh, proposed eliminating the Internal Revenue Service and replacing it with a kind of national sales tax, and John McCain has spent the winter in a raging argument with himself over the Bush tax cuts (he voted against them and now he loves them) — there ain't much difference between Obama and Clinton. Both would repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and spend most of the money to provide health-care coverage.

In fact, when the two senators rolled out their stimulus packages back in January, they were so similar that Clinton's economic adviser, Gene Sperling, had no specifics in Obama's plan to deride and was left thanking the Obama camp for following Clinton's lead. An Obama adviser acknowledged to me, "The difference is really shades of gray."

So when I sat down to write about Obamanomics, it struck me to look at the delivery, not the script. Even there, the differences are narrow. Obama presents himself as being above politics, congenitally bipartisan. But his tone on economics has the same mild populism as Clinton's.

Knowing that angry Democrats want some grit, Obama sometimes tries to seem tougher than he is. After he took his Health Care for Hybrids plan to Detroit last year — basically a grand bargain in which the auto industry would get more relief from Washington if it did more to raise fuel efficiency — he touted it as a tough, tell-them-what-they-need-to-hear speech, not pandering. But its tone was hardly the kind that would send auto executives reeling, which is why, for all the talk of change, Obama's done fine with wealthy donors, whether they're in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. Even when he adds a couple of populist flourishes — a jab at Wal-Mart in January's South Carolina debate, for instance — they fall as flat as Clinton's jabs at, say, the pharmaceutical lobby.

Still, all said, there's something in between the lines that's exciting about Obama and what he means to business. He's bringing some change, and executives in Asprey should be taking notice as much as those cheering kids in Abercrombie have.

First, Obama's sheer abilities as a CEO haven't received much attention. There was no reason to think that a lawyer who had never run anything larger than a Senate office would really have been able to build such an amazing campaign organization. Yes, he was a community organizer, but you wouldn't expect orchestrating street protests to necessarily translate into assembling a machine that stretches from coast to coast and spends tens of millions.

One benefit of the endless primary season is that it tests not just the mettle of candidates but also that of their organizations. Obama's campaign is a testament to his abilities. It's flexible. It's fast. And it got built quickly, unlike the Clinton machine, which has been assembling itself for years, like a conglomerate that keeps acquiring new companies. (Disclosure: My wife is a senior adviser to Clinton.)

Unlike other insurgent campaigns that have found themselves suddenly within striking distance of the nomination, Obama's rose in a way that was simultaneously revolutionary and orthodox. On the orthodox side, he actually raised the money and secured the endorsements and built the ground operation. Unlike, say, George McGovern or Jimmy Carter, who defeated established front-runners to win the Democratic Party's nomination but faced frantic, last-minute, anybody-but movements led by party elders determined to snatch it from them, Obama did it the old-fashioned way, only in record time. Mitt Romney was the businessman in this race, but Obama may just turn out to be the real CEO.

Second, Obama really is bringing a new generation of businesspeople and thinkers into the race. If you look at the businessmen around Hillary Clinton, you see a lot of wizened veterans, smart and tested to be sure. There's Roger Altman, who served as deputy Treasury secretary in the first Clinton administration and could probably get the top job in the next one — unless, say, Morgan Stanley boss John Mack (if he isn't tainted by the stock drop) gets the gig by virtue of knowing the Street and having the added cachet of being a Republican Hillary supporter. And there's the perpetually youthful private equity maven Steve Rattner, who, at 55, is now older than Robert Rubin was at the start of Bill Clinton's first term.

If you look at the business types around Obama, they actually are younger, starting with Rattner's 42-year-old partner, Josh Steiner. Julius Genachowski, 45, was a top aide to Reed Hundt at the Federal Communications Commission and helped Barry Diller build and expand Interactive Corp. He's contributed to developing Obama's broadband policy, which is more detailed than Clinton's. He's also a friend of mine; the feminists used to say the personal is political, and when I find the smartest people I know flocking to someone, I tend to notice.

From the financial world, Obama's got Michael Froman of Citigroup, who was Rubin's chief of staff. (A most serious disclosure: Froman and I shared a group house in Georgetown in 1982.) Like Genachowski, he was a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's and has helped him navigate trade and market issues.

In other words, when it comes to comparing economic positions, the choice between Clinton and Obama is a coin toss. When it comes to personnel, Obama's team is less tested but more interesting. In other areas, Obama is not without his dreary names from the past. His foreign policy team includes Tony Lake, one of the less successful Clinton veterans. But overall, the faces are fresher, edgier.

If you were designing the perfect candidate in a lab, you'd want John McCain's personal courage, Mike Huckabee's humor, and Hillary Clinton's tenacity. The ingredient you'd want from Obama isn't hope, which is, after all, hype. They all offer hope — even Ron Paul, in a creepy, Ayn Rand kind of way. But what Obama offers, I think, is executive experience that's been underrated and an entourage that is slightly fresher. These aren't huge reasons to vote for him instead of Clinton, but such is the narcissism of small differences.

Video: It's still the economy, stupid

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