Politics & Policy

The Obama Fiasco

Failure all around.

The whole Obama era to date has been wasted in a historic, amateurish botch of the health-care issue. This began as a crusade for social justice — to cover the uninsured, whose numbers were suitably exaggerated, as most of them are people changing jobs from one health-insuring employer to another, or foreigners resident in this country, legally or otherwise, or the indigent, who are eligible for Medicaid.

It wasn’t clear from this rationale, however, why Obama was also trying to take over the insurance of those already covered. He therefore pressed on to the need to take over health care to save money (by nationalizing it). The Congressional Budget Office blew that up, so the president moved crisply on to revenue-neutral health-care reform for its own sake. The corresponding promises of cost reductions proved to be shortchanging elderly Medicare recipients of hundreds of billions of dollars and chasing Washington’s oldest and most elusive will-o’-the-wisp, the last refuge of 220 years of desperate public officials, the ever-popular “waste and fraud.” And the “reforms” themselves are just aggravations of long-established mistaken practices.

The president’s reform plan has been seen by almost everyone to be bunk, and hackneyed bunk at that. His political capital is evaporating and, while it was disgraceful for a congressman to scream at him “You lie!” (which he was, about health care for illegal immigrants), this is more understandable and likely to be more habit-forming than an Iraqi journalist’s throwing shoes at his predecessor.

Instead of following the Roosevelt 1933 formula of squarely acknowledging a crisis and pledging an immediate plan of action with inspiriting calls for solidarity and national effort, he magnified the problems in order to try to create an appetite for a more radical turn to higher taxes and social benefits than the country wanted. Instead of sending precise bills to Congress and generating public support for them as Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan did, Obama left it to the Democratic congressional leadership, which festooned every bill with pendulous payoffs to key votes and interests.

The $787 billion stimulus plan was a monstrosity of patronage and logrolling. The money that was borrowed (to stimulate, in reality, Democratic reelection prospects) has been taken from purposes that would have stimulated the economy just as efficiently. Larry Summers could not have believed his promises of instant results that would confine unemployment to 8 percent. Two-thirds of the stimulus is for dispersal closer to elections, and meanwhile unemployment is knocking at the door of 10 percent. The whole misconceived idea should be scrapped and replaced with tax cuts, but it won’t be.

The cap-and-trade bill is so loaded with rebates and exemptions that the administration’s own spokesmen acknowledge that while it would sharply raise heating and air-conditioning costs in tens of millions of American homes, it would neither raise federal-government revenues nor reduce carbon emissions. It was based on the unproved Al Gore science-fiction vision of the environment, and it won’t pass.

It looks like a patchy health-care measure almost certainly adding substantially to the deficit may limp through via the politically hazardous reconciliation process. The president’s proposed tax increases, which have been the subject of an indecent amount of dissembling for over a year, will not pass either (and would be insane anyway).

And the forecast trillion-dollar annual deficits for a decade are allowed to fester in the thoughts of the financial world, unaddressed, pushing gold over $1,000 per ounce and dragging the dollar inexorably downward. This administration shows no will to pay down the debt accumulated by 15 years of borrowing trillions of dollars from China and Japan to buy trillions of dollars of non-essential goods from China and Japan, while outsourcing millions of jobs to China and Japan to produce these imports and admitting millions of unauthorized entrants who could have filled the vacated American mills and factories whose production was outsourced. Instead, it will just devalue the currency in which the debt is denominated and end America’s long reign as the world’s wealthiest per capita large country, an honor it already shares with six other advanced nations.

The political class of both parties legislated and ordered the issuance of trillions of dollars of worthless real-estate debt, eliminated savings, penalized those in rented accommodation, and promoted wild residential-real-estate speculation. It has now locked arms to over-empower the failed regulators who sat, mute as suet puddings, while this crisis developed, to save the Franks, Waxmans, Dodds, Rubins, and Greenspans from their just deserts. They have agreed to blame everything on private-sector greed: Attorney General Eric Holder will prosecute avaricious businessmen, as he will Republican-appointed intelligence officials. The criminalization of policy differences, a corrosive and self-destructive process that began with the Watergate crucifixion of one of the country’s most effective presidents, and continued through the Iran-Contra nonsense and the absurd effort to remove President Clinton for undignified but hardly unprecedented peccadilloes, has resumed. It will beget nothing good or just, and will be revisited on its perpetrators.

The administration that was elected on the promise of change has been neutered by the trial lawyers, who donated $47 million to the Democrats last year and have prevented the measures necessary to cut health-care costs. It has been suborned by the dead hand of organized labor, which has been rewarded for decades of overpayment and shoddy work habits in automobile-making with entrenchment of the UAW’s unfeasible health-care benefits, continued protectionism, and outright ownership of most of what is left of the U.S. auto industry.

Nothing is being done to defuse the Social Security or other benefit time bombs, or to reform a corrupt political system in which most of the legislators are bound hand and foot to different special interests, and are locked almost permanently into gerrymandered districts. Nothing is forecast to turn America back from a consumption to a production economy, apart from the president’s own fable about huge numbers of people building windmills: a new, enhanced version of quixotry.

Nothing is being done to fix a failed education system in which teachers’ unions fight tooth and nail against any connection between pay and performance and the dropout rate is 42 percent, or to reform a prosecution service that wins over 90 percent of its cases, enjoys a procedural stacked deck, terrorizes everyone it looks at, and has gutted the individual-liberties and due-process sections of the Bill of Rights with the plea-bargain system’s wholesale exchange of perjury for immunity or reduced charges. Nothing has been suggested for improving the conduct of the failed drug war, which has reduced parts of Mexico to civil war without reducing access to unprescribed drugs in the U.S.; nor has the administration moved to reduce sentences for the more than 40 percent of Americans who at some point experiment with marijuana (the greatest cash crop in the Golden, bankrupt State of California).

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama unfortunately confirms the world’s love for weak or at least misguidedly diffident American leaders, in the mould of previous Nobel laureates Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. all made immense contributions to peace and probably earned that prize but did not receive it. This president has engaged in wholesale, equal-opportunity apologies for much past U.S. foreign- and military-policy success. He has appeased almost all of the world’s most odious and hostile regimes, including those of Putin, Ahmadinejad, Chávez, and the Myanmar colonels. It’s possible that the emoting about nuclear disarmament will assist the efforts to discourage Iran and North Korea from developing a nuclear-arms capability, and that preemptive concessions to Russia will promote sanctions that, when they don’t succeed (as they never do), will help create a consensus for decisive action against Iran — but it is unlikely. The “War of Necessity” in Afghanistan has become a waffle. Joe Biden, who wanted to divide Iraq into three countries and should be constitutionally barred from publicly discussing foreign policy, wants to fight the cave-dwelling terrorists of Waziristan from off-shore. The president has mercilessly bullied Honduras to violate its own constitution and subvert its own fragile democracy, and has reneged on European missile defense and on the Bush-Sharon agreement on West Bank settlements (the implementation of which caused Sharon to buck fierce opposition and found a new political party). His foreign policy is a high-risk pursuit of appeasement that has few successful precedents, at a time when the U.S. is not strong in the world and has its economic and strategic credibility to rebuild. The first U.S. president to win a Nobel Peace Prize in office, Theodore Roosevelt, knew to carry a big stick while speaking softly.

The Obama Kool-Aid drinkers — led, by right and tradition, by the political scientists of Hollywood — have, like Demi Moore, pledged to “fight for the president” to the bitter end (which is nigh). The less energetic, such as the inevitable Jimmy Carter, have charged the president’s critics with racism, a tawdry and almost always false claim. Worthy commentators like Tom Friedman have decried the coarsening of the American public debate, doubtless sincerely. More to the point, Peggy Noonan, whose kindly, sentimental Irish nature was briefly pixilated by Obamamania, now sees the president as “cool” (i.e., cold), “faux eloquent,” and even a Narcissus.

Barack Obama is obviously a very intelligent man, and should be a popular and successful president. But his mandate for profound reform and a steam-cleaning of the Augean Stable of Washington is being squandered. So far the change is more of the same, only worse. This president has achieved less in his first nine months than any incoming president since Warren Harding. It is not too late, but it looks now like the people will vote again for change, with increasing desperation, next year and in 2012. If the country does not get leadership equal to the scale of its problems, as it did in 1860 and 1932, the decline of America will move from a slope to a fall. This emperor still has no clothes, and it is not racism to notice it.

– Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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