Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and both the elder and the younger George Bush all found the third and fourth years of their presidencies harder than the first and second. The nation and the world grew tired of their speechmaking. The novelty of a new commander-in-chief faded; poll numbers went south. The same thing is now happening to President Obama on a variety of fronts.
Democrats assured voters that we would love Obamacare once the new federal health-care plan was at last implemented. Republican critics warned that we would like it even less once we saw it unfold. We will soon find out who is right, as the four-year implementation begins in earnest during 2011. But if 100 organizations and corporations have already obtained exemptions from the Obama administration, how many more will seek to avoid the new law in 2011?
Something also has to give on the budget this year. Keynesian spending was supposed to jump-start the economy and bring in more federal tax revenue. Instead, borrowing another $3 trillion over the last two years has not led to much improvement in the economy, as unemployment is still well above 9 percent. We will see a rendezvous with fiscal reality in 2011 since either Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, or defense — which together total 60 percent of the government’s yearly budget expenditures — will have to be trimmed. It is one thing for politicians to give speeches about reckless spending and unsustainable debt, but quite another to freeze Social Security increases, up the retirement age, or cut Medicare benefits.
For the last two years, the Obama administration has worked on two energy assumptions: (1) The global economic downturn in late 2008 that caused oil prices to crash would give strapped American consumers a sudden gift of cheaper gas without much government action. (2) Solar and wind power and “millions of new green jobs” would usher in our alternative-energy future.
But harsh realities have intervened. While the Obama administration was making it far harder to develop oil and gas on government-owned western lands, and hampering offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the world economy was recovering — and with the recovery, energy demands were increasing. As oil now approaches $100 a barrel, gas is already over $3 a gallon and headed still higher. It may have been two years since the beleaguered motoring public embraced the chant “Drill, baby, drill,” but when voters begin paying nearly $4 a gallon in 2011, they will want far more oil production and far fewer pie-in-the-sky green speeches.
With the new proposed defense cuts, the U.S. Army will lose almost 50,000 troops in four years, the Marine Corps another 20,000 — along with radical curtailments in the number of armored vehicles, front-line jet fighters, and new ships. But will there be commensurate reductions in American commitments overseas?
Perhaps all U.S. troops will soon leave Afghanistan and Iraq, and China will not flex its muscles against Taiwan or Japan. Maybe North Korea will not attack South Korea. Cyprus probably will stay quiet. The former Soviet republics in theory could improve their relations with Russia. The Balkans should remain peaceful. Israel does not want another war with Hamas, Hezbollah, or Syria, or a new one with Iran. Mexico may win its drug war. Yet the rub is not that there is a likelihood in 2011 of simultaneous conflicts in a variety of hotspots, but that there are no assurances that there won’t be at least one among so many scary places.
Finally, President Obama has proclaimed a new willingness to seek compromise and consensus with the Republican opposition. However, the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives, energized by the Tea Party, believes that such sudden presidential outreach is predicated only on the electoral reality of the Democrats losing 63 House seats in the last election. The conservative opposition also assumes that it was elected to dismantle, not facilitate, the Obama agenda.
So in 2011 we will see whether Obama still talks of his opponents as “enemies” who need to be “punished” and kept in the “backseat,” or whether he is willing to concede that bipartisanship now may mean that his liberal vision of 2009 was rendered inoperative by the political reality of last November.
On a variety of fronts — health care, the budget, energy, defense, and politics — we have heard lots of easy rhetoric the last two years. But now the reckoning comes due in 2011 — and it may be not a pretty thing to watch.