Barack Obama’s rise to power brought together the vanity of a man, a social class, and an ideology. The mood of his support base may have gone from utopian to thuggish over the last four years, but the intense self-satisfaction remains. In part because of the incumbent’s own personality, contemporary liberalism (with honorable exceptions) is unable to understand opposition to itself in other than pathological terms. How else to explain how so many people could fail to recognize the greatness of his presidency?
Having decided that only partisanship, insanity, or nihilism could explain resistance to the Obama agenda, the president and his allies have given themselves moral permission to run a presidential campaign of uncommon nastiness and stupidity. Many of the reelection campaign’s main arguments — that outsourcing is a sin that disqualifies practitioners from office, that Romney would reinstate the policies that caused the financial crisis, that leaving religious employers as free as they were in 2011 to decline to cover contraception constitutes a “war on women” — are so utterly without merit that it is hard to believe that Obama and his team believe them.
The Obama record, examined without liberal presuppositions, is unimpressive, even dismal. While he took office amid great difficulties, as you may have heard, he has done little to strengthen the nation in the short term and a good deal to weaken it in the long.
The stimulus that his partisans credit with saving the country from another Great Depression could not have done any such thing, having disbursed most of its funds after the economy had already hit bottom. The chief evidence for its efficacy comes from studies that assume what they are said to prove. The financial-regulation bill left Fannie and Freddie untouched while entrenching the notion that some companies can rely in extremis on federal bailouts. The auto bailout prevented a normal bankruptcy process that would have left both the auto companies (which would have been freer from unaffordable commitments to unions) and taxpayers in better shape.
The Obamacare legislation would probably extend health insurance to many people who lack it. While the evidence that this extension will actually improve their health is scant, it should increase their financial security. This benefit is bought, however, with a reduction in the financial security of the nation as a whole. The legislation appears to bring the books to balance, even to produce a slight surplus, by cutting Medicare. The Medicare cuts are, however, of a type that have repeatedly failed in the past. About the president’s confidence that he can succeed in managing federal health spending to drive efficiency throughout the sector, when previous such efforts have not even succeeded in boosting efficiency within Medicare, all that can be said is that it is typical of the man.
An alternative plan, more in keeping with the traditional American preference for free markets and limited government, would have gradually increased the number of people with access to individually purchased insurance while concentrating subsidies on the relatively small number of people whose preexisting conditions make insurance extraordinarily hard to arrange. That approach, which would have cost less money and posed no threat to medical innovation, was never seriously entertained by an administration committed to the myth of Washington’s omnicompetence.
Obama’s party has controlled the Senate for the entirety of his time in office, and for most of that time refused to draw up a budget. The administration has had notional budgets, but is quite like its Senate allies in refusing to choose among spending priorities or to bring long-term spending commitments into line with what we can afford. Instead it has tried to make the elevated spending levels of the crisis, with the stimulus, into a norm. The president claims to oppose middle-class tax increases, like the Republicans. Unlike the Republicans, he has advanced no plan to restructure entitlements to prevent those tax increases. He has contented himself with launching false attacks on the Republican plan.