The Differences Between Obama and Clinton

The conventional wisdom regarding the Democratic primary campaign is that there is very little difference between Obama and Clinton on the issues, and the differences come down to matters of style and feelings about change. As is so commonly the case, the conventional wisdom is totally wrong. There is a tremendous difference between the two, which explains why so many people say they will vote for Obama in November, but not Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is a self-described government junkie who sees more and bigger government programs as the solution for all problems. Barack Obama is a liberal and his goals overlap with Clinton’s on issues such as expanding health care. However when the specifics are reviewed, on issue after issue it is Obama who takes the side of freedom and justice while Clinton falls on the opposing side.

On foreign policy the most obvious difference is over Iraq. No matter how Clinton supporters try to distort the issue, the simple fact is that Obama opposed the war from the start and Clinton supported it. Clinton appears ready to make the same mistake on Iran with her vote for Kyl-Lieberman. Clinton frequently repeats the neocon line connecting the Iraq war with 9/11 and tries to use fear of terrorism to obtain votes.

There are differences in foreign policy in less high profile areas. David Rees compares the views of the two on cluster bombs in civilian areas:

Over 150 nations have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. It pains me that our great nation has not. But in the autumn of 2006, there was a chance to take a step in the right direction: Senate Amendment No. 4882, an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill that would have banned the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.

Senator Obama of Illinois voted IN FAVOR of the ban.

Senator Clinton of New York voted AGAINST the ban.

Once again, Barack Obama takes the side of justice, while Hillary Clinton takes the opposing side.

Besides the disastrous war in Iraq, we have a foolish war here at home as the war on drugs has been a terrible failure. While Obama has shown signs of willingness to change US policy, Hillary Clinton is as much a hawk on the war on drugs as she is on foreign policy. For example, Barack Obama has supported needle exchange programs while Hillary Clinton has been opposed.

Hillary Clinton has a well-deserved reputation for being a supporter of the nanny state. Hillary Clinton wants to use the power of government to protect us against all sorts of dangers. This includes the dangers from cartoon sex and video games. Hillary Clinton has even introduced legislation to ban flag burning.

After George Bush, it is important to have a president who will scale back the increases in presidential power. While Obama’s experience as a professor of Constitutional law will be valuable here, Clinton has been a backer of executive privilege. When the Boston Globe surveyed the candidates on their views of presidential power they found, “Clinton, a veteran of congressional investigations of her husband’s administration during the 1990’s, embraced a stronger view of a president’s power to use executive privilege to keep information secret from Congress than some rivals.” While Hillary Clinton cites her experience as First Lady as reason to vote for her, she is keeping the records of her activities as First Lady a secret until at least 2009.

The Washington Post compared the candidates on ethics reform, finding that, “On this issue, Obama leads the pack.” When Obama pushed ethics legislation, Clinton was opposed. Once again, Obama is on the side of justice as well as change, but Hillary Clinton is opposed.

Both Clinton and Obama have plans to make health care more affordable, but Clinton’s plan is centered around achieving universal coverage by forcing you to join her plan. Obama has taken on the challenge of developing a health care plan which most people will find of value, and if they don’t like it they don’t have to join. Here Obama shows both a respect for freedom and the courage of his convictions in needing to have a plan which people will voluntarily participate in. Plus Obama’s plan won’t have to waste money better spent for health care on new government bureaucracy to enforce Clinton’s mandates.

These differences on health care are just one example of their considerable differences on economic issues. The Guardian explained:

Obama’s preference for reducing healthcare costs while preserving the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in the healthcare system, as against Clinton’s (and Edwards’s) insistence on mandating participation, is not a one-off discrepancy without broader implications. Rather, Obama’s language of personal choice and incentive is a reflection of the ideas of his lead economic advisor, Austin Goolsbee, a behavioural economist at the University of Chicago, who agrees with the liberal consensus on the need to address concerns such as income inequality, disparate educational opportunities and, of course, disparate access to healthcare, but breaks sharply from liberal orthodoxy on both the causes of these social ills and the optimal strategy for ameliorating them…

Similarly, while Obama’s support of immigration and immigrants undoubtedly derives in part from straightforward internationalism and humanitarianism – Obama’s lead foreign policy advisor is Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell, under whose guidance Obama has directed far more attention to the Darfur genocide than any other candidate – it’s likely that part of Obama’s embrace of immigration stems from a Goolsbeean view of free movement of labour as inextricable from and essential to a free global market.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Obama’s belief in freedom in labour markets and freedom in capital markets, sets him apart from the Republican field as well as the Democrats. Under ordinary circumstances, one would expect Republicans at least to respect free trade, but alas, they are inconsistent at best. As for freedom in immigration, even in politically propitious times, the modern GOP makes tactical concessions toward its xenophobic wing; in this season of famine, the Republican candidates, even those who have supported immigration in the past, have set up their nominating contest as a race to see who can take the most thuggish and contemptuous possible attitude toward Mexicans (the euphemism for this posture is “out-Tancredo-ing Tancredo”)…

In other words and in short, Obama’s slogan, “stand for change”, is not a vacuous message of uplift, but a content-laden token of dissent from the old-style liberal orthodoxy on which Clinton and Edwards have been campaigning. At the same time, Obama is not offering a retread of (Bill) Clintonism, Liebermanism, triangulation, neoliberalism, the Third Way or whatever we might wish to call the business-friendly centrism of the 1990s. For all its lofty talk of new paradigms and boundary shifting, the Third Way in practice amounted to taking a little of column A, a little of column B, and marketing the result as something new and innovative. Obama and Goolsbee propose something entirely different – not a triangulation, but a basis for crafting public policy orthogonal to the traditional liberal-conservative axis.

If this approach needs a name, call it left-libertarianism. Advancements in behavioural economics, public and rational choice theory, and game theory provide us with an opportunity to attend to inequality without crippling the economy, enhancing the coercive power of the state, or infringing on personal liberty (at least not to any extent greater than the welfare state already does; and as much as my libertarian friends might wish otherwise, the welfare state isn’t going anywhere). The cost – higher marginal tax rates – is real, but eminently justified by the benefits.

This helps explain how Obama can appeal to liberals, independents, and even some conservatives and libertarians. Those who try to figure out whether Obama is more or less liberal than Hillary Clinton are missing the point. As the above selection explains, Obama’s views are something entirely different, orthogonal to the simplistic liberal-conservative linear spectrum. Andrew Sullivan has made similar observations about Obama:

He is not a traditional top-down big government liberal. He’s a pragmatist who believes in finding ways to empower people to run their own lives. No, he’s no libertarian. But his view of government’s role has absorbed some of the right-wing critiques of the 1970s and 1980s. Hence the lack of mandates in his healthcare proposal and his refusal to engage in racial victimology. This nuance is worth exploring. Unlike Hillary, he doesn’t believe he is going to save anyone. He thinks he has a chance to help some people save themselves.

It is understandable that many supporters of out-dated, big government, tax and spend liberalism who prefer Hillary Clinton do not understand or support Obama. Paul Krugman will continue to write his columns attacking Obama for using “conservative frames” and continue to totally misunderstand what Obama is all about. Those who accept his arguments fail to understand that freedom is not a conservative frame–it is a fundamental liberal value.

In contrast, those who wish to combine traditional liberal values of liberty and justice with progressive economic ideals find in Obama a candidate who can develop ways to achieve the goals of the left while respecting the legitimate objections of those on the right. This is the solution we need to beat the Republicans who have attempted to govern with 50% plus one as well as those Democrats who believe they can do the same by electing Clinton. Obama’s calls for change is not an empty slogan, but a path to move away from this type of hyper-partisanship and polarization. With Clinton we will continue to be divided by the red/blue state map. Even many Democrats who do not see a major difference between the candidates as I do are realizing that a candidate like Obama who can appeal to those beyond core Democrats can produce strong coattails in November and build a new Democratic majority that can accomplish change.


  1. 1
    Michael says:

    Another key difference between the two is that Obama is not the polarizing figure that Clinton is. For whatever reason, Republicans love to hate Hillary, while at the same time, some conservatives are looking at Obama and seem to be saying, “I’d be OK with him as President.” He must have some core decency if Andrew Sullivan is willing to cast his liberalism as pragmatism and explore his character. I think that’s Sullivan’s form of dissonance reduction.

  2. 2
    John Farmer says:

    Calling Obama’s apprach ‘left-liberalism’ is a horrible choice. I’m a left-liberal and even I don’t like that moniker.

    How about ‘pragmatic progressivism’?

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    The person I was quoting was calling him a left-libertarian. While not entirely accurate there is some value in that label.

  4. 4
    Jay says:

    Thanks for listing my blog.

    While at it, you might want to insert a missing word (“beat”?) between “we need to” and “the Republicans” in the fourth line of the last paragraph of your excellent essay above.


  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:

    Fixed. Considering how I decided late yesterday to quickly put this together after a long day at the office, I’m amazed there weren’t more errors beyond this and a couple I found after initially posting. (Before I act too confident perhaps I should read it again–who knows if I missed anything else. It is very easy to read what you intended to say as opposed to what is actually typed when proofreading.)

    This was my last attempt to try to help influence the vote before Super Tuesday. I know many have read it. Hopefully it has convinced some people that there really is a significant difference between the two candidates.

  6. 6
    Bernie Zimmermann says:

    I came here looking for objectivity. I didn’t really find it (see “once again, Obama is on the side of justice as well as change, but Hillary Clinton is opposed” repeated over and over again), but the read was interesting nonetheless. Thanks.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    You really think you are going to find anything that is really objective?

    If you are searching for the answer you need to take the views of proponents of both candidates and then do your own fact checking. I’ve provided a number of issues where there is a clear disagreement, and which support by belief that there is a real difference between the candidates with regards to their views on justice, the role of government in people’s lives, and a change from the current status quo. Following the links will provide further evidence on these points.

    In contrast, the blogs backing Clinton often repeat the same talking points which are based upon distorting Obama’s positions, as I’ve demonstrated in several other posts here.

    On the other hand, if you think that cluster bombs, banning flag burning, censoring video games, continuing the drug war, tying in Iraq to 9/11, campaigning based upon fear of terrorism, and health care mandates (as opposed to reforms to make coverage more affordable) are good things, then Clinton would be the candidate for you.

  8. 8
    Deborah says:

    Republicans love to hate Hillary, while at the same time, some conservatives are looking at Obama and seem to be saying, “I’d be OK with him as President.”

    Which is one of the main things I like about her. If this were any other time in history, I’d love to see a ball buster like Hillary in Office. Men need to get used to a strong woman being in charge and the main charge against Hilary is best reflected in McCain’s, “How do we beat the bitch?” That he asked that question of a presidential candidate in this day and age of feminism and supposed equality would have guaranteed my 100% support of her if Obama had not come along.

    But Obama outshines all of the candidates. That he is a black man, to me, simply gives him that additional measure of understanding of ALL sides of minority issues that white folks, no matter how well meaning, seem to lack. He also seems to have a mind (that I don’t see in Hilary) that can well grasp more than red/blue, black/white, with us or against us. Obama is the candidate to bring intelligent consideration back to Washington.

    At the present moment, we cannot afford anyone who remotely resembles the old status quo. The type of change Obama invokes is not only welcome but absolutely imperative if this country is to progress and overcome the stigma, oppression and sheer Orwellian backwardness that has defined the Bush Administration from start to finish.

  9. 9
    Ron Chusid says:


    A strong woman president is fine with me–but not Hillary Clinton. While McCain’s line was out of line, Clinton has many faults (which are unrelated to being a woman) which make me happy that we won’t probably won’t have to settle for a race between Clinton and McCain. I see either as essentially a continuation of the Bush style politics of trying to impose your view with 50% plus 1.

  10. 10
    Chris Blask says:

    Hello Ron,

    Very well put.

    I am an Independent who has migrated to the right of the center line (after a fairly far-left past) precisely for the reasons you have enunciated so well here. Given the usual limit of four or five ideological labels I will select “libertarian” inasmuch as it embodies the belief that every individual is capable of owning personal responsibility and capability.

    A life half-lived in Canada (in separated chunks) and evolving interactions with supporters and politicians on both sides of the ideological divide has created in me a specific distaste for what I have – for lack of a better term – often referred to as “modern liberalism”.

    After a frustrating call to a Canadian radio show the word I have been seeking to sum up my dissatisfaction with what I have come to see as the wholesale abduction of the beliefs that I have held all my life (namely that mankind is a wonderful species, the world a wonderful place and Americans a wonderful people) flashed in my mind.


    It is the condescension of those who believe they hold the simple answers to complex issues that I myself – no complete intellectual slouch, at least by some measure – have wrestled with for thousands of hours.

    It is the condescension of those who attempt to reach down from the lofty heights they inhabit to offer inclusion and protection to those who neither ask for nor appreciate nor require their intervention.

    It is the condescension of a twenty-year-old Kerry volunteer honestly stating to a camera that she “got better SAT scores than George Bush” as a means to convey her belief that this somehow makes her vastly superior to a person who despite failings has more pragmatic experience in life than she – or most of us – is ever likely to approach.

    The same condescension I, regrettably, see in the eyes of Sen. Clinton as she impatiently tolerates the words of other speakers while waiting to interject the statements of wisdom she seems so aware they are not competent to grasp. The same condescension that I read in the downward hand-gestures she uses to shush her own followers as she stands at a podium ready to grace them with her words.

    This condescending attitude leads to the “Nanny state” approach that I find stifling in Canada, Singapore and much of Europe, as examples. It leads to the aspects of modern American liberalism that divide both the population of this country and indeed the membership in the Democratic party.

    And it is the condescension that will lead myself and millions of others to switch our current support from the Democratic party and elect John McCain president of the United States, if it is presented as the only alternative.

    I have watched with growing interest now-Senator-Obama for quite a few years. It has been increasingly plain to me that this is a person who shares my own long-unpopular goal of advancing the social welfare of the national and global population while – and *by* – emancipating those same individuals, not by dictating to them. That I am not alone in the belief that the principles that evolved to create the conditions and constitution of the country are *intrisically* *correct* – that “All Men are Created Equal”, that Freedom of Thought and Freedom of Speech are not just ideals to be pursued but actionable *absolutes* that enable the achievement of the goal of advancing human achievement. That the answers to solving the challenges of the world and of the individuals who inhabit it do not lie in *imposing* solutions crafted on some rarified intellectual high ground but rather in engaging each one of us in using the incredibly talents inherent in us all.

    Until reading your thesis the exact words to describe my support for Sen. Obama have been elusive. You have provided a very useful set of memes for me to digest and integrate towards that end, and for this I am grateful.



    PS – if you got a half-written version of this, please email it back to me, I lost some good text. God, how I hate writing in these (*&^% little web boxes! ;~)

  11. 11
    Kevin B. says:

    Chris, I just wanted to chime in and say that I enjoyed your intelligent and nuanced perspective in your reply above.


    Ron, thank you for your perceptive delineation between the two candidates on the issues. This is exactly what I needed to get passed all the hulabaloo I am normal spoon fed by the mainstream dialogue.

  12. 12
    Randy says:

    Iam not for either canadidate but just remember two things

    1. 1993 healthcare– wined and dinned her CEO friends and got ZERO done.

    2. Whitewater gate and her 1,000 into 100,000 trading. Both lies and against the law if true.

    This country elected her hubby nicknamed “slick willy” and believe it or not this country is paying for that mistake. Ask anyone who was part of Enron or Worldcom. Over inflated economy is also bad since a correction(ression) is needed. Bush has made some mistakes but Hillary is hated not due to being a woman but because of her stances and lack of productivity.

    The best reason to vote against her “she lies like her husband” two examples above and just recently the latest spin on her bosnia trip. The lies won’t end so why even elect a person like that to president, woman or not.

    I would vote for Rice in a heartbeat and the world would get a strong black woman as president… hummmm just a thought.

    Good day.

  13. 13
    Ron Chusid says:

    I lost respect for Rice due to the way she handled warnings about al Qaeda before 9/11.

    I might forgive her for not having acted on them as before 9/11 the Bush administration’s view that a non-government entity could not do us serious harm was understandable (even if wrong). However I cannot respect her for the way she subsequently denied having receiving the warnings about al Qaeda from the Clinton administration when there was a clear paper trail that she had received them.

    I worry about someone who responds to being wrong by resorting to such denial. It reminds me of her boss.

  14. 14
    Shae says:

    I was undecided and am duly influenced.

  15. 15
    Heather says:

    I was recently asked by a  friend who was I voting for? Clinton because she is a woman or Obama because he is black. Of course my response being that I will vote for the person who will best help this country come up from the depression that it is currently in. But, I will be honest in saying that I was unclear what either persons’ views were on certain issues because they indeed did sound the same. So, Ron, thank you. You made it all very clear for me. I was already leaning towards Obama, especially after Hillary’s very femine, emotional, bi-polar breakdown on television. You can’t be a ball-buster and a lady at the same time. One or the other please. But, I now see the big differences and I know now without a doubt who I will vote for. Thanks Ron.

  16. 16
    Gayle says:

    Many people keep telling me that Obama is just good at saying what the crowd he is speaking to wants to hear. I do not see that in him, I see honesty, and willingness to listen. In Clinton, I have seen dishonesty, (ie. Bosnia trip) and by not getting on board behind Obama and giving him support, I have seen unwillingness to listen.(??) Am I wrong? The democratic party in many areas seem to be begging her to help unite the party. She either doesn’t listen, or just what is she doing?

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