Politics & Policy

Not All Talk Is Cheap

We would wager that President Obama’s speech will go over well. Much of it sounded good to us. The president says that he does not believe in big government and, indeed, wants to abolish ineffective government programs. He seeks to avoid as much as possible bailing out irresponsible homeowners, bankers, and automakers. He promises to stand up against protectionism. He claims that nobody making less than $250,000 a year will pay a single dime more in taxes. He favors tax-free universal savings accounts for retirement. He is, judging from the speech, uninterested in promoting social liberalism. And even where we disagreed with what he said, he usually made a cogent, reasonable-sounding case for his position.

He lost us, however, on “nobody messes with Joe.” People don’t mess with Joe Biden because they’re busy ridiculing him. As for the centrist tenor of his remarks, we confess to being among the cynics about whom Obama has so often warned. We do not see how Obama’s cap-and-trade plan to fight global warming, or his plan to tax small businesses for health-care coverage, is compatible with his tax-cut promise in any but the most technical sense. We think Obama’s focus on high-school and college graduation rates, while popular, is precisely wrong, a distraction from the more important task of seeing to it that young people know more and gain more skills. We suspect that Obama’s hope that ailing automakers survive while unwinding unwise commitments would be more likely to come true if his administration permits orderly bankruptcies. We worry that government attempts to nurture the industries of tomorrow have typically failed.

Obama’s comments on foreign policy were platitudinous, and brief: Iraq got a sentence; Afghanistan shared one with Pakistan. Obama’s heart lies elsewhere. We were told that the U.S. should “not shun the negotiating table,” as though the last administration had. Perhaps someone can brief Obama on the progress of the six-party talks about North Korea. 

We wonder whether our cynicism may catch on in the months ahead. Obama’s many nods to the residual conservatism of the public may be sincere, but they do not seem to be reflected in his actual program. Nor does the balance of power on Capitol Hill seem likely to result in the moderation of that program.

Obama is often said to be a figure full of promise. Republicans should hold him to account for his best promises, and point out the unpleasant implications of his worst ones. 

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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