Hence, the noble lie. Liberals deplore but cannot disregard a fundamental political reality: Americans don’t know or want what’s good for them. So many people suffer from correctable failings, Michelle Obama told campaign audiences in 2008, because our country is “just downright mean.” If the selfish, shortsighted voters are to be brought around to embrace the only remedy, the liberal agenda, liberal polemicists need to portray its benefits in maximal terms while insisting its costs are minimal or even negative. The only “price” people will pay is to enjoy more and more benefits. In order to get Americans to institute — little by little, but ultimately in its entirety — a Scandinavian safety net, one must assure them every step of the way that its benefits won’t require anything resembling Scandinavian taxes or regulations.
In his 2007 Iowa speech, Obama said Democrats could form a “new majority” by reaching out to voters “who’ve lost trust in their government, but want to believe again.” As has been the case since Obama appeared on the national scene, this assessment reflects a strategic ambiguity. Is he speaking about policy substance, the governing process, or both? People could have lost trust, that is, in government’s capacity to acquit its responsibilities effectively, including the social-welfare responsibilities that account for most of modern government’s workload. It may be, however, that people have lost trust in the political process because politicians — in their dealings with one another and with the public — are strident, duplicitous, and evasive, rather than conciliatory, forthright, and accountable.
Ideally, the substantive problem and the procedural problem turn out to be the same problem. This is the central premise of Obamaism. During the first press conference following his 2009 inauguration, the president characterized his approach to congressional Republicans as being “consistently civil and respectful.” That press conference concentrated on the urgent needs manifest in a city the president had just visited, Elkhart, Ind., “a place that has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in America.” Obama’s “bottom line” was the distress in Elkhart and similarly afflicted communities around the country, which meant “I can’t afford to see Congress play the usual political games.” The cessation of political games sounds like a procedural objective, but Obama made clear that he would judge whether Congress, especially its Republicans, had gotten serious by the substantive standard of passing a stimulus bill with provisions he wanted. As in the televised “Bipartisan Meeting on Health Reform,” held in February 2010, with Democratic legislators on one side of the table, Republicans on the other, and the president between them moderating the discussion and exploring points he considered important, Obama wanted to have it both ways, to be an umpire and captain of one of the teams.
The hope is that civil and respectful policy debates, ones that tell Americans what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear, will leave voters ever more favorably disposed to assigning new responsibilities to government, confining the arguments to technical details about delivery and financing. But the category of what people need to hear seems to include nothing that would alert them to the prospect that implementing the liberal agenda might incur significant difficulties, costs, and dangers. Rather, what people need to hear includes everything — but only as much as — liberal politicians and publicists want to tell them.
So, throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama made a “firm pledge”: “No family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital-gains taxes, not any of your taxes.” The problem with exempting 97 percent of American households from any federal tax increase is that it makes it impossible to pay for: 1) the expensive obligations baked in the cake when Obama took office in 2009; 2) the expensive obligations government has taken on since then, Obamacare chief among them; and 3) the expensive obligations sure to be added to existing ones the next time Democrats have the power to enact them.
After winning reelection, the term-limited president had the opportunity of a lifetime to tell people what they needed to hear instead of what they wanted to hear. With the fiscal-cliff deal of January 2013, however, he responded by making his reckless campaign promise of 2008 even more reckless, agreeing to exempt not 97 percent of Americans from federal tax increases, but more than 99 percent. And he made this deal, which confined higher income-tax rates to individuals making more than $400,000 and to families making more than $450,000, despite enjoying “overwhelming leverage” against Republicans, as liberal columnist Jonathan Chait lamented, given that all the Bush income-tax-rate cuts from 2001 were set to expire.