During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was billed as a cool rationalist — a sober and judicious intellectual so unlike the inattentive and twangy “smoke ’em out” George W. Bush, so rational in contrast to the herky-jerky and frenetic John McCain. Like Senator Kerry, our professor president now laments Americans’ descent into emotion. “Facts and science and argument does [sic] not,” our president moans, “seem to be winning the day.”
The largely academic intellectuals whom Obama brought into his administration promised to bring their erudition and logic both to reading public opinion and to providing commensurate winning solutions. Sympathetic liberal pundits also cited their own empirical thinking as proof of a scientific method that they find sorely lacking in the gush and rancor of talk radio, the Tea Party, and Fox News. But in its first 21 months, this administration has serially proved inept at analyzing public opinion, and seems instead governed by predetermined ideology that trumps basic empiricism.
It all started in January 2009, when a giddy Barack Obama failed to appreciate how he got elected. He concluded that his victory was proof of a radical shift to the left on the part of the American electorate. In fact, it was a combination of the novelty of the first serious African-American presidential candidate, a so-so McCain effort, the traumatic financial meltdown of Sept. 15, 2008, unhappiness with the Bush administration’s Iraq war, fawning media, an orphaned presidential election with no incumbent running, and Obama’s centrist campaigning that explained the near impossible election of a northern liberal, when kindred sorts such as Dukakis, Kerry, McGovern, and Mondale had all failed. The country clearly wanted a corrective to the big spending and borrowing of the Bush administration — and soon discovered that, instead, it was going to get a far larger second serving of it.
From the outset, European expansive government was the model for this administration. But a statist antidote to the financial crisis was a complete misreading of ongoing events at home and abroad. The Wall Street meltdown was a result of a two-decade-long state intervention in the mortgage industry. Big government had guaranteed lower-income Americans that they could buy homes they could not afford, while those who built, sold, or financed subsidized houses were aided and abetted by the con — assured of exorbitant government-backed profits with the ethical cover of helping the poor achieve home ownership.
In reaction, quite fabulously the Obama administration explained this government-backed Ponzi scheme in terms of popular distrust of private enterprise and a need for a radical expansion of government as a share of GDP — or, in the now-infamous quip of Rahm Emanuel, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” More ironic still, the implosion of much of southern Europe and the belt-tightening and cost-cutting of the European Union’s strongest economies offered ongoing proof that the redistributive state was unsustainable, at the precise moment we Johnny-come-lately Americans were rushing to embrace just that failed paradigm. The almost stealthy departure from the Obama administration of academics who so prominently guided our economic policy until recently — Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, Larry Summers — suggests that they wished to get out of fantasy town ahead of the reasoning posse that was bound to follow.
The same flight of logic explains the Obamians’ weird post-election political triumphalism about the first two years of unpopular legislation promoted or passed by the administration. The takeover of health care, passage in the House of cap-and-trade, bailouts, expansions of entitlements, and huge deficits should — given their low poll ratings — have been something to hide rather than parade. Yet Obama and his loyalists point to these very accomplishments as proof that a now unpopular administration should be proud of its unpopular record.