Politics & Policy

Tax, Spend, and Shovel

Surely there are less expensive ways to learn that “shovel-ready projects” are a myth.

Back in early 2009, President-elect Barack Obama was asked on Meet the Press how quickly he could create jobs. Oh, very fast, he said. He’d already consulted with a gaggle of governors, and “all of them have projects that are shovel-ready.” When Obama revealed the members of his energy team, he explained that they were part of his effort to get started on “shovel-ready projects all across the country.” When he unveiled his education secretary, he assured everyone that he was going to get started “helping states and local governments with shovel-ready projects.”

In interviews, job summits, and press conferences, it was shovel-ready this, shovel-ready that. Search the White House website for the term “shovel-ready” and you’ll drown in press releases about all the shovels ready to shove shovel-ready projects into the 21st century, where no shovel is left behind.

Only now it turns out that the president was shoveling something all right when he was talking about shovel-ready jobs — a whole pile of steaming something.

In the current issue of The New York Times Magazine, Obama admits that there’s “no such thing as shovel-ready” when it comes to public works.

It’s not that Obama was lying when he said all that stuff. It’s just that he didn’t know what he was talking about. All it took was nearly a trillion dollars in stimulus money and 20-plus months of on-the-job training for him to discover that he was talking nonsense.

It seems to me that, if I were president, and I not only staked vast swaths of my credibility but gambled the prosperity of the country generally on this concept of “shovel-ready jobs,” I might be a bit miffed with the staffers who swore that shovel-ready jobs were, like, you know, a real thing.

And yet, if you read Peter Baker’s Obama profile, it’s clear that Obama isn’t mad about that. In fact, he still thinks he got all the policies right. Baker writes that Obama is “supremely sure that he is right,” it’s just that the president feels he didn’t market himself well.

“Given how much stuff was coming at us,” Obama explains, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and PR and public opinion.”

This is an old progressive lament: Our product is perfect, we just didn’t sell it convincingly to the rubes.  

But wait a second. If they spent “much more time trying to get the policy right,” how come nobody said, “Uh, Mr. President, these ‘shovel-ready jobs’ you keep talking about? They’re sort of like good flan — they don’t exist.”

Let’s not dwell on such things. Besides, Obama has already said that his problems come from “neglecting marketing and PR and public opinion.” Indeed, that, and only that, explains why people think he looks like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.”

The only problem with that: facts. Obama’s health-care plan raises taxes on Americans (though Obama says this is not so, they’re merely mandatory fees and premiums) and will cost trillions. He wants to raise taxes on “the rich” — defined so that a cop married to a nurse might well count as rich — and on small businesses.

Meanwhile, Washington is now spending 23 percent more than it did two years ago. As the Washington Post recently editorialized, Congress’s “emergency” bailout to avoid “a teachers crisis” was a fraud to simply transfer billions to the teachers’ unions in advance of the midterms.

And then, of course, there’s the stimulus that paid for all of those “shovel-ready jobs” that Obama now admits never existed. Los Angeles County deployed $111 million in stimulus money to “save” 55 jobs at the cost of $2 million apiece. The White House has spent $192 million on road signs that brag about how the construction delays ahead were paid for by the stimulus. Meanwhile, unemployment is a full three percentage points higher during Obama’s “recovery” than it was during the “worst recession since the Great Depression.”

Maybe it’s unfair for people to think Obama is just another tax-and-spend Democrat. After all, some tax-and-spend Democrats are actually competent at it.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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