Politics & Policy

Cut Us Loose? If Only!

Mr. President, meet Americans, a self-reliant people.

When touting his policy successes, President Obama tends to lapse into “we” speak. You know, “we’re building wind turbines and solar panels and bio-diesel plants” or “we want to invest in . . . high-speed rail and broadband.” The “we,” of course, is a small number of enlightened government bureaucrats dispensing our tax dollars with all the aplomb of a hedge-fund manager investing in the next big thing.

In getting so “we, we”-ed up, our president betrays an arrogance common among progressives. It is perfectly reasonable, this reasoning goes, to expect a GS-15 government careerist to (1) use tax dollars and government regulations to manipulate entire sectors of our economy, (2) do it adeptly, and (3) create more wealth and jobs than would be produced by millions of self-interested investors, consumers, and small-business owners acting independently in the private sector.

It is these career government bureaucrats, after all, who must look out for us little people and protect us from the predatory, heartless free-market forces that seek to destroy us. The president explained all this recently to a rapt audience of labor-union members in Milwaukee.

Republicans, he explained, “just don’t want to give up on that economic philosophy that they have been peddling for most of the last decade. You know that philosophy — you cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires; you cut all the rules and regulations for special interests; and then you just cut working folks loose — you cut them loose to fend for themselves . . . What it really boiled down to was . . . you were on your own.”

Cut us loose? To fend for ourselves? On our own?

Oh, the horror, the horror of it all.

With this rhetoric — now part of his stump speech whenever he addresses economic issues — the president clearly hopes to tap into what he believes is an underlying sense of financial insecurity on the part of most Americans. The great financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009, he no doubt believes, left an entire generation scarred and more receptive to the helping hand of big government than any generation since the Great Depression.

Happily, that is not the case. Americans remain a self-reliant people who instinctively question the wisdom and competence of government to guide and shape our lives.

In the economically tumultuous days of April 2009, when 401(k)s and home values were plummeting and pink slips flew, the National Journal and the Allstate Insurance Company commissioned a poll to learn what factors most influence us when we make financial decisions for ourselves and our families. If ever a poll was timed to comport with an administration’s security-blanket agenda, this one should have been it. After all, the widespread and seemingly random economic damage then rampant across the land almost seemed designed to cause even the most resilient free-marketer to question the wisdom and viability of the free-enterprise system itself.

But that’s not what the pollsters found. National Journal summarized the findings as follows:

Even amid the most disruptive economic downturn since the Great Depression, a substantial portion of American adults continue to see personal action, rather than government intervention or business decisions, as the best means of improving their economic security. More poll respondents picked personal initiatives, such as doing a good job or investing more carefully, than any other option when asked how they might better manage the challenges of financing retirement, maintaining a secure income, and accumulating assets.

#PAGE#Overall, 57 percent of adults said financial well-being depends on “your own actions,” such as “working hard, doing a good job, leading a healthy life, and saving and investing carefully.” Only 37 percent, in contrast, said their financial well-being depends on “events out of your control,” such as “what happened in the economy, decisions by your employer, an unexpected illness, and what happens in the stock market.”

This self-reliant streak cut across occupational categories. Strong majorities of clerical workers (58 percent) and middle managers (59 percent) exhibited it, along with two-thirds of senior managers.

Respondents were asked to identify the best way to achieve a number of financial goals: ensuring a financially secure retirement, accumulating personal and family assets, purchasing affordable health care, and being able to count on a reliable income over one’s lifetime. Majorities, some of them quite substantial, expressed greater confidence that their personal actions and private-sector products would accomplish these goals than that reliance on government programs and regulations would.

Specifically, upwards of 60 percent thought relying on their personal actions and the private sector was the best way to secure their retirements, build their personal and family assets, and achieve a reliable income over the long-term. And, by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent, they preferred the private sector to the government as the source of their health care.

These attitudes are entirely in keeping with what we’ve learned about Americans in the Age of Obama. Case in point: At the height of the 2008 financial meltdown, almost half of Americans (45 percent) worried whether their assets would be there for them; 59 percent even believed another Depression was a very real possibility. One might have expected these jittery Americans to support the easy and self-interested option of a government bailout. Instead, they looked askance at the then-unfolding bailout mania on Capitol Hill. Only 16 percent said the congressional rescue package would help their family’s financial situation, 28 percent said it would hurt, and the remaining 47 percent said it would make no difference.

We are a nation comfortably, but not (alas) dramatically, to the right of center. Among the many virtues most Americans embrace is a profound sense of self-reliance born of an equally profound suspicion of all things government.

You can keep your new college-loan program and health-insurance czar, they seem to be saying. Just let us keep more of what we earn so we can pay the kids’ tuition, buy the health plan we chose, and otherwise make our own way through life.

The president should ponder these virtues — and how widespread they are among the electorate — before he gives another speech denigrating the great American desire to “fend for ourselves.”

– Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.


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