President Obama is stirring up the forces of reaction. Or at least he wants to. He is their inspiration and their leader, the nation’s most eloquent and powerful advocate of a government of the past.
The man from “hope and change” wants, to the extent he can, to perpetuate the bankrupt and bankrupting structures of 20th-century government. His political genius turns out to be throwing a patina of daring over what is only an amped-up version of the status quo. Both his supporters and his critics hype him as something new under the sun, when nearly everything he does represents the brackish backwash of 1970s liberalism.
When the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, proposes changes to put his state’s relationship with public-employee unions on a footing more appropriate to our straitened times, Obama instinctively sides with the unions, defending privileges dating from the mid and late 20th century. The president’s former campaign arm, Organizing for America, supports the anti-Walker protesters, who deploy hoary tactics — the chanting, the drums, the sit-ins — that could have been pulled from a 1970s time capsule.
In a noisome bit of body snatching, the Madison protesters associate themselves with the demonstrators in Egypt. If we must use Egypt analogies, this one has it backward. Tapping into new technologies empowering individuals, the anti-Mubarak protesters overthrew a sclerotic political system that no longer fit the times. In their aims, the anti-Walker throngs are more like Egypt’s counterdemonstrators who rode in on camels to try to save a decrepit, 30-year-old political dispensation.
Obama’s transformative agenda has largely consisted of accelerating already-present trends. We had already tried a stimulus and deficit spending — Obama gave us more of both. We already had subsidies to green energy — Obama created more. We already were spending more than ever on education — Obama added more. We already had massive government health-care programs crowding out the private sector and tipping the federal government toward bankruptcy — Obama added yet another one.
At a time when even some Democrats say spending has to be cut, when his own administration says that the debt is unsustainable, Obama’s budget stays resolutely anchored in the status quo. His own deficit commission proposed far-reaching reforms of the budget, the tax system, and entitlement programs. Obama took up none of them: too much change.
Since it never pays to be associated with the past, Obama has chosen a slogan utterly disconnected from his program: “Winning the Future.” It was one thing, though, to run as the candidate of the future against John McCain, or to pose as the champion of change against congressional Republicans forced from 2008 through 2010 into a defensive crouch. It’s quite another to do those things arrayed against fresh young Republican reformers, like Paul Ryan in the House and Govs. Scott Walker and Chris Christie in the states, who want to update government for the 21st century.
These new Republicans are willing to talk openly of moving to, to paraphrase Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, Entitlements 2.0. They think it only makes sense, as demographic and fiscal realities change, for these programs to change. They want them to better reflect a society where we have more individual choice than anyone imagined 50 years ago. “As our case is new,” Abraham Lincoln said, “so we must think anew and act anew.”
If Obama is at all inclined this way, his political supporters — fierce defenders of government as it currently exists — won’t let him express it. They waged a campaign to keep him from offering any meaningful ideas to reform Social Security in his State of the Union address, forcing him back on the weakest generalities. For them, the tablets as handed down by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson are sacred and not to be tampered with — ever.
Against this fixed filiopietism, Republicans are ready to offer truly bold change. From his vantage point on the ramparts of reaction, President Obama can only hope it’s too much, too fast.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.