Politics & Policy

Soaring and Sinking

It was a thoroughly 21st-century affair: old political bulls, rappers, and pop singers, fashions by Thom Browne and Kate Spade, high-tech security measures, and a pre-inauguration message from the president via Twitter. President Barack Obama, being sworn in for a second term, was doing the thing he does best: giving a speech largely divorced from reality.

He is very much a man of his times — perhaps the characteristic man of his times — but President Obama sought to connect his project of converting the United States into a social democracy with the 18th-century Enlightenment liberalism of the Founding Fathers and the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But social democracy is not compatible with the Founders’ values, a fact that cannot be rendered inert even by so fine a rhetorician as President Obama.

“History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing,” he said, “that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of and by and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” These are very fine words, and true words. But the principles they contain have not guided President Obama’s first term, and there is no reason to believe that these principles will guide his second.

The very form of government cited by the president above — a republic — necessitates a particular conception of citizenship (another word the president leaned heavily upon) and of the citizen’s relationship to the state. It is the American conception of citizenship in a constitutional republic that defines the unique political character of our nation, and that is the very thing that President Obama promised to ignore: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.”

Progress sometimes does require us to settle questions about the role of government: Either government is to have the power to force citizens to violate their consciences in the name of insurance reform or it is not. Either the items in the Bill of Rights mean what they say or they do not. Either the Second Amendment is about hunting or it is about something else. Either the authority of the federal government has discoverable limits or it is unlimited. Taxes are either a tool for raising revenue or a tool for achieving some vision of what the president’s admirers like to call “social justice.” The president will have to answer these questions one way or another. Indeed, he has done so implicitly, and his refusal to make his assumptions explicit does not unmake them.

Even such gauzy generalities as the president favors are incompatible with the solid facts of his record in office. And the more specific his statements, the more specifically wrong they are. “A decade of war is now ending,” the president declared. “An economic recovery has begun.” There is rather more and rather less to both of those oversimplified observations than is accounted for by the president’s address.

An economic recovery is indeed under way. It has been under way since June of 2009, well before the implementation of most of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other economic policies. But that recovery has been a weak one, and there are 8.3 million fewer Americans in the work force today than there were the last time Barack Obama took the oath of office. From boondoggles such as Solyndra to banana-republic gimmicks such as the $1 trillion coin Democrats have touted as an end-run around statutory limits on the government’s debt, Barack Obama and his congressional allies have undermined the credibility of U.S. economic institutions. These policies have failed on the president’s own terms; they have proved unable to secure strong economic growth or to reduce unemployment to acceptable levels. We have had a “recovery” only in the technical economic sense of the term, partly as a result of economic cycles beyond the reach of the White House and partly as a result of developments toward which the president and his party are hostile, such as the resurgence of the U.S. fossil-fuel industry.

And it is clear neither that a decade of war is now ending — not in Iraq or Afghanistan, to say nothing of Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, or Mali — nor that the final settlements in Iraq or Afghanistan will secure U.S. security interests. The Obama administration is not entirely wrong to protest that it inherited a troubled economy from the Bush administration, but it also inherited an Iraq in which the United States was well positioned to achieve its war aims: The biggest project left to the Obama administration was the final negotiation of a status-of-forces agreement to secure what had been accomplished there. The Obama administration did not secure such an agreement, at great cost to U.S. interests. Our former allies in Iraq, including the Kurdish leaders, increasingly are under the influence of an adventurous Iran, where the ayatollahs apparently have not been informed that a decade of war is now ending.

Regarding the critical questions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the unfunded liabilities of which weigh heavily upon the nation’s economic prospects, the president has reaffirmed his mulish resistance to reform. President Obama likes to think of himself as an heir to the New Deal and the Great Society and likes to say of his administration, “We do big things.” Reforming U.S.-government finances is the big thing that must be done by this generation, and it is the big thing that President Obama resolutely refuses to do, or even to talk seriously about doing. He shows no comprehension of the economic risks associated with the level of debt the federal government is carrying.

Those who were inspired by Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration address did not have a four-year White House record to judge him by. In 2013, that has changed. Unfortunately, little else has: The rhetoric is still soaring, and the country is still stagnating.


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