Obama headed to Plains, not Hope

Barely six months into his presidency, Barack Obama seems to be driving south into that political speed trap known as Carter Country: a sad-sack landscape in which every major initiative meets with not just failure but scorn from political allies and foes alike.

From a lousy cap-and-trade bill awaiting death in the Senate to a health care reform agenda already weak in the knees to the failure of the stimulus to deliver promised jobs and economic activity, what once looked like a juggernaut is showing all the horsepower of a Chevy Cobalt. Obama must be reviewing the history of recent Democratic administrations for a road map out of his post-100-days ditch.

So far, he seems to be skipping the chapter on Bill Clinton and his generally free-market economic policies, flipping back instead to Jimmy Carter. Like the 39th president, Obama has inherited an awful economy, dizzying budget deficits and a geopolitical situation as promising as Kim Jong Il’s health. Like Carter, Obama is smart, moralistic and enamored of alternative energy schemes that were nonstarters back when Carter was installing solar panels at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Like Carter, Obama faces as much effective opposition from his own party’s left wing as he does from an ardent but diminished GOP.

And, as with Carter, his specific policies are genuinely unpopular. The auto bailout has been reviled from the get-go, with opposition polling north of 60 percent. Majorities have said no to bank bailouts and to cap and trade if it would make electricity significantly more expensive.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than 80 percent are concerned that health care reform will increase costs or diminish the quality of care. Even as two House committees passed a reform bill last week, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned that the proposal “significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs” and dramatically raises the cost “curve.”

As writers who called George W. Bush’s presidency a “disaster,” we’re equal-opportunity critics. As taxpayers with children and hence some small, almost certainly unrecoverable stake in this country’s future, we write with skin in the game.

It’s too early to write Obama off. Yet his ambitious domestic agenda is unquestionably at a fork in the road: one leading to Plains and early retirement, the other to Hope, Ark., a second term and the revitalization of the American economy.

While Obama ran as a repudiation of Bush, he is in fact doubling down on his predecessor’s big-government policies and perpetual crisis-mongering, from the indefinite detention of alleged terrorists to gays in the military to bailing out industries large and small. It took the two of them to create the disaster that is the 2009 budget, racking up a deficit that has already crossed the historic $1 trillion mark.

Beyond pushing the “emergency” $787 billion stimulus package (even while acknowledging that the vast majority of funds would be released in 2010 and beyond), Obama signed a $410 billion omnibus spending bill and a $106 billion supplemental spending bill to cover “emergency” expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite pledges to achieve a “net spending cut” by targeting earmarks and wasteful spending, Obama rubber-stamped more than 9,000 earmarks and asked government agencies to trim a paltry $100 million in spending this year, 0.003 percent of the budget.

As Bush claimed to be cutting government while increasing real spending by more than 70 percent, Obama seems to believe that saying one thing, while doing another, somehow makes it so. His first budget was titled “A New Era of Fiscal Responsibility,” even as his own projections showed a decade’s worth of historically high deficits. He vowed no new taxes on 95 percent of Americans, then jacked up cigarette taxes and indicated a willingness to consider new taxes as part of health care reform.

What Obama has not grasped is that Americans understand both irony and cognitive dissonance. He has mistaken personal popularity for a national predilection toward emergency-driven central planning. Americans prefer the slower process of building political consensus based on reality and at least a semblance of rational deliberation.

In this, Obama is a perfect extension of Bush’s worst trait. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration pushed through the Patriot Act, a massive, transformative piece of legislation that plainly went unread. Bush whipped up a crisis atmosphere every time he sensed a restive Congress or a dissatisfied electorate. He rammed through the TARP bailout at warp speed, arguing that the United States yet again faced catastrophe at the hands of an existential threat.

But there simply is no outside threat to the American way of life. No country can challenge us militarily; no economic system stands to dislodge capitalism; no terrorist group can do anything more than land the occasional (if horrendous) blow. And the U.S. economy is resilient enough to overcome the worst-laid plans from the White House.

Bush learned the hard way that running government as a perpetual crisis machine leads to bad policy and public fatigue. What are Obama’s options?

First, stop doing harm. Throwing money at the economy is the shortest path to what Margaret Thatcher described as socialism’s flaw: Eventually you run out of other people’s money.

No matter how many fantastical multipliers Obama ascribes to government spending, with each day comes refutation of the administration’s promises on jobs and economic growth. Even economic adviser Christina Romer now grants that calculating jobs “created or saved” by Team Obama is simply impossible.

Second: No more magical realism. Save “fiscal responsibility” for policies that at least minimally resemble that notion. Don’t pretend a budget that doubles the national debt in five years and triples it in 10 is the work of politicians tackling “the difficult choices.” Americans have a good B.S. detector, and the more you mislead them now, the worse they’ll punish you later.

Finally, it’s time to connect the poster boy for hope to the original Man From Hope. After Bill Clinton bit off more domestic policy than he could chew, leading to a Republican rout in the 1994 midterm elections, he refocused his political intelligence on limiting his ambitions and, consequently, the size of government growth. Though there is much to complain about in his record, the broad prosperity and mostly sound economic policy under his watch aren’t included.

This shouldn’t be a difficult task for Obama. As a political animal, he has always resembled Clinton more than Carter. This might help him avoid the Carteresque pileup he’s driving into. Far more important, it just might help the rest of us.

Matt Welch is editor of Reason magazine. Nick Gillespie is the editor of Reason.com and Reason.tv.