“We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” — Barack Obama, October 30, 2008
“We are going to have to change our conversation; we’re going to have to change our traditions, our history; we’re going to have to move into a different place as a nation.” — Michelle Obama, May 14, 2008
There certainly is no question that Barack Obama wants to change the United States. And there clearly is no doubt that such fundamental transformation is difficult, given our tripartite system of government — even though Obama entered office with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, an enthralled media, and a closely divided Supreme Court.
So to what degree, after nearly five years in office, has Obama succeeded in changing the United States?
Federal spending. We are $6 trillion more deeply in debt. And there are record numbers of Americans on food stamps, unemployment insurance, and disability insurance, or simply disengaged from the work force. Obama has also fundamentally changed Americans’ ideas about the redistributive state.
Whereas, under Clinton and Bush, the argument centered on whether federal subsidies eroded the work ethic, created dependency, and led to a permanent underclass, now the discussion is quite transformed beyond the safety net. Fairly or not, Obama is seen as expanding entitlements in part as a political tool, quite apart from the question of their efficacy in eliminating poverty.
The problem is not just that his critics accuse Obama of trying to create a permanent constituency, a loyal “47 percent” dependent on state money, but rather the way in which Obama himself envisions these programs as reminders of his them/us faultlines. After 2009, the regulations governing food stamps and welfare were liberalized and politicized as never before. These payouts were judged not just on whether they hurt or helped people, but also, in the Greek and Roman sense, of increasing the number of recipients so as to change political realities.
Taxes and debt. Democrats usually wish to raise them, Republicans to shrink them. Nothing new there. But under Obama, there is now a twist. Higher taxes are not a means to achieve a balanced budget, as under the Clinton-Gingrich deal of 1997. Indeed, the return of a 39 percent–plus federal income-tax rate on higher incomes will result not in a balanced budget as before (even with congressionally imposed sequestration). We will still have huge annual deficits of two-thirds of a trillion dollars or more.
Because nearly half of Americans will continue to pay no federal income taxes, and the old Clinton rates were imposed only on the upper brackets, we have the worst of both worlds: high taxes on job creators, along with continuing huge deficits. That paradox raises the question of whether Obama sees deficits not just as necessary to prime the economy, or as a tolerable consequence of huge increases in federal spending, but also as a mechanism to serially raise taxes on the upper brackets, as a desirable redistributive end in and of itself. Taxes are seen now not just as a way to fund expenditures, but as a punitive tool — hence the new phraseology of 1 percent, fat cats, corporate-jet owners, you did not build that, no time to profit, at some point you’ve made enough money, etc. A more equal but poorer America appears to be preferable to a more affluent but less equal nation.
Health care. Little need be said about Obamacare, an orphan now disowned by most of its parents. The purpose of this vast new entitlement was not to ensure all Americans better health care (if it had been, then pro-Obama business owners, unions, and congressional staffers would have wanted in), but instead a sort of health-care TSA bureaucracy, with more dependents, more federal workers, and higher redistributive taxes — in short, larger government.
Interest rates. Ostensibly, de facto zero interest rates are used as a stimulus for a moribund economy that so far seems oblivious to all the traditional liberal priming tools of massive borrowing, growth in federal spending, and more entitlements and public hiring. Yet almost nonexistent interest rates have sharpened the class divide. The very wealthy have benefited enormously as capital streamed into the stock market in desperate search of almost any return. The very poor do not depend on interest on savings as a hedge against inflation or as central to retirement.