Take also new mandates. The problem with Obamacare is not just that it represents a vast new entitlement at a time of record annual deficits, but that no one knows how much it will cost employers to enroll their employees. Potential hirers instead suspect only that their health-care expenses will spike, and those who are politically connected for that very reason have sought and obtained exemptions from the Obama administration: All companies, liberally owned or not, want out, not in — exactly the opposite of what the administration forecast. The public likewise suspects that Obamacare will come to resemble the hated TSA they see at airports — lots of employees milling around, little guarantee that the job at hand is done well, and an evident resentment of federal employees toward the public they serve. Will X-rays for our kidneys resemble the sort of scanning process and pat-downs we endure at airports? And the more the government seems to take over private enterprise — the car bailouts, the mortgage industry, student loans, wind and solar partnerships — the more private enterprise is frightened of being the next small guitar company or the next Chrysler creditor. Government seems now to be not only incompetent but arrogant, as if its vast recent growth ensured its impunity from oversight — whether in the GSA scandal, the Secret Service debacle, or the Fast and Furious mess.
Take wealth. There is a crass war against wealth. Obama has ridiculed those who have done well as the one-percenters, the fat cats, the corporate-jet owners, and the ones who don’t pay their fair share or don’t know when to stop making money. But the problem with this boilerplate populism is that it does not emanate from the muscular classes and is not aimed uniformly at the proverbial rich. The first family vacations in Martha’s Vineyard, Costa del Sol, Vail, and Aspen, not at Camp David; and the lieutenants in this class warfare are themselves one-percenters, an Al Gore, John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. Likewise, who determines whether to go after the Koch brothers or Warren Buffett; is this week’s enemy to be Exxon or Google? Why is the non-income-tax-paying GE under Jeffrey Immelt apparently approved, while a CEO on Wall Street is deemed a fat cat? Is it give to Obama and you are canonized; give to Romney and your name is posted on an enemies-list, pro-Obama website?
The only thing more discouraging to investors than class warfare generally is a certain type of class warfare: a hypocritical crusade that emanates from the upper classes and selectively targets enemies on the basis not of wealth, but of the degree to which they have failed to buy exemptions with their wealth. Meanwhile, on the other end, the message is more weeks of unemployment insurance, vastly more food-stamp recipients, and constant promises of mortgage-debt relief, credit-card-debt relief, and tuition-debt relief. If one were to dream up a perfect way to destroy incentives on both the top and bottom ends, one could do no better than what we have seen since 2009.
The net result is that those with capital, even if they are small businesses, do not believe that the Obama administration likes them. They feel that regulations will increase, that taxes will increase, that energy costs will increase, and that as they pay more to government and keep less, government will nevertheless become even more arrogant and inefficient — and they will become even more demonized. When people pay over 50 percent in payroll, federal, state, and local taxes and are still caricatured as “not paying their fair share,” a sort of collective shrug follows and bodes ill for the economy at large. One need not be liked to make money, but the constant presidential harangues finally take their toll in insidious ways.
Countless times each day, a contractor chooses to hire only a part-time electrician, a CEO hoards cash rather than opens a new plant, a renting family declines to buy a reasonably priced new house, an indebted graduate heads home to kick back and wait until “something turns up,” and an unemployed worker wonders whether it is not wiser to receive all two years of federal benefits before reentering the work force.
I don’t know whether Mitt Romney’s economic package will bring instant prosperity. But I suspect that the fact alone that it is not what we have seen and heard for the last four years will unleash a pent-up energy of the sort we have not seen in a long time. In short, President Obama has achieved the impossible — he has convinced millions of rational, profit-minded Americans eager to invest, buy, and hire that he doesn’t worry much whether they do.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author most recently of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]