Some years ago a musicologist with a sense of humor patented a piano parlor game called “Write your own Mozart.” It didn’t enable the player to write music as well as Mozart, of course, but by shuffling a series of musical bars in some sort of order, it did allow him to produce an acceptably Mozart-like piano pastiche.
Someone — a member of the Judson Welliver Society of presidential speechwriters perhaps — should produce a parlor game called “Write your own Inaugural Speech.” By shuffling a series of oratorical flourishes, the player would be able to craft a suitable Inaugural for a president of any party or ideological tendency. It would be lofty, vague, uplifting, and falsely bold. It would point to anonymous challenges, promise to climb distant hills, and scorn the foolish temptation to follow an easier path to the same results. It would defend freedom, equality, compassion, love, prudence, risk-taking, faith, hope, and charity against their ruthless and determined detractors.
Some inaugural speeches consist entirely of such muscular trivialities. They are hard to hear because they are so meaningless that the mind drifts off elsewhere. Most turn into a real political assertion at some point, usually suggesting that the banalities of the first half of the speech will be realized in policies proposed in the second half. This is usually the moment when vapidity turns into outright flimflammery. In today’s Inaugural, this moment came quite early, about four minutes into it, with the following sentences:
For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Let’s parse that passage for a moment. To begin with, it claims that in the past (the pre–New Deal period is indicated here), parents of a child with a disability could look nowhere for assistance because government programs were unavailable. That is plainly false. Neighbors, churches, local hospitals, and a multitude of mediating institutions all provided assistance. Inadequate assistance? Probably, because we were all — including governments — much poorer and less skilled in treating disabilities in the past. But most people could turn to others for help before they turned to the state.
Obama then went on to proclaim that Americans don’t believe that “freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.” True enough, Americans don’t believe those things. Nor do people of other nations. Despite this universal agreement, however, happiness never seems to get distributed equally. And my bet is that Americans don’t believe that government programs can achieve an equal distribution of happiness, either — though they almost certainly do believe (and rightly so) that freedom and power have been maldistributed from ordinary citizens to government officials (perhaps by the very programs intended to redistribute happiness). So the more that government expands its concern from our economic disabilities to our psychological ones, the more likely it is to fail, and to fail expensively.
The president’s third point is that even hard-working and responsible people sometimes lose a job or a home from external causes. That argument is true, indeed platitudinous, and is the traditional justification for social-insurance programs introduced first by Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s. As the initiators of such programs recognized and stated clearly, however, if social insurance was to be worthy of the name, then its benefits would have to be paid for by contributions. Otherwise it wouldn’t be social insurance but a handout — which Bismarck, Lloyd George, William Beveridge, Clement Attlee, and other reformers warned would be both unjust and pauperizing.
This the president stoutly denies in his final argument when he says that entitlement programs do not sap our initiative but instead encourage risk-taking. Really? It was just about possible to believe such things before the big entitlement programs were actually in place. But the existence of an underclass in every welfare state, the spiraling costs of all entitlement programs, and the fierce fight that their beneficiaries mount against any attempt to restrict social benefits all destroy this belief. And, while on the topic, how many entrepreneurs emerge from the social groups most dependent on welfare spending?
Wrong though it is in every particular, however, this passage is valuable as a clear theoretical outline of what Obama believes — and what his future programs will be. Anyone who had heard him only to that point could have predicted almost all the specific proposals that came afterwards. All in all, the Inaugural was like hearing a salesman sell a rocking chair as if it were an exercise bicycle. And as commentators have already pointed out, the president went on to defend every single existing social program and to promise the introduction of various new programs (such as global-warming remedies, a.k.a. higher energy costs).
If we ignore the rhetorical falsities and dig for the real meaning underneath them, the speech becomes almost fascinating. Obama is covertly saying: “Look, I raised federal spending to almost a quarter of America’s GDP in my first term. That leaves a gap of 3.5 to 5 percent of GDP between that spending and likely revenue. None of that gap is going to be filled by cuts in entitlement programs or social expenditures. None whatsoever. My veto will see to that. I will force Congress to raise spending — not solely by raising taxes on the rich (I’ve already conceded that the middle class will have to pay higher taxes, too), but by skewing taxes much more significantly than they are skewed today in a redistributive direction. And insofar as I can’t get higher taxes, I will increase borrowing. At the end of my eight years in office, the result will be a European welfare state (even if I agree not to call it that so as to save face for those Republicans who vote with me). And however costly the welfare state proves, it will be unrepealable once it is in place. Like Reagan (but unlike either Clinton), I will have reversed the trajectory of American politics.”
This is a bold strategy that has (I would guess) about a 20 percent chance of success. The essential (and crippling) difference between Obama’s trajectory and Reagan’s is that the latter’s strategy succeeded economically. Indeed, it would not have succeeded politically if it had failed economically. But there is very little chance that Obama’s economic policy will work at all, let alone so well that the increased revenue it generates will be sufficient to bridge the fiscal gap outlined above. In those circumstances, Obama will face two sets of spiraling costs: the rising costs of the entitlement programs and the higher interest costs of his increased borrowing. And that combination is a rising tide that swamps all boats.
How will the president cope with such discouraging trends? Well, he might say sternly that he, for one, will never join those nattering nabobs of negativism who count America out. Or he could perhaps venture that where others see gathering storms, he sees beyond them to the sun breaking through the clouds onto the mountain tops. Or, if things look really bleak, maybe he will resort to the Dictionary of Quotations.
A Talleyrand gem should do it. When a French revolutionary asked him how to win converts to his new-and-improved religion, the wise diplomat replied: “Nothing simpler. Get yourself crucified and rise again on the third day.”
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.