The Corner

Obama’s Missing First Term: Coming Soon?

Would a second Obama term spell the end of limited-government America as we’ve known it? Would electoral victory effectively vindicate Obama’s long-term transformative strategy and set the fundamental changes initiated by his first term in stone? That is the general consensus, as expressed, for example, in an excellent piece on post-election scenarios by James Ceaser.

It may well turn out that way, but another scenario for a second Obama term is possible. The odd thing about Obama’s first term is that we haven’t really experienced it yet. In normal circumstances, for example, with health-care reform having passed halfway in, the country would have lived under the new regime for two years and today’s electoral battle would be a referendum on that change. Yet Obama has intentionally deferred nearly everything important — and controversial — about his sweeping health-care reform to a second term. That’s only the beginning. Many of Obama’s most ambitious initiatives are still largely empty templates designed to be filled in during a second term.

The conventional conservative take on all this is fear that a reelected Obama will have a free hand to fill in the blanks, transforming the country in the process. Yet if the mere prospect of Obamacare was enough to spark a first-term tea-party rebellion, what will happen when the massive changes Obama has carefully backloaded to his second term actually hit? There’s a small industry of conservative policy wonks warning about the coming consequences of Obamacare. If only part of what they say is true, we could be in for a popular backlash that makes the first tea-party wave look small by comparison.

And that’s only the best-known issue. There are plenty of others, like Obama’s stealth national curriculum, which is already sparking tea-party rebellions in Indiana and Utah, parental revolts likely to spread far more widely when the full curriculum and testing system hit in a second term. And what will the business community do when Obama’s still largely undefined Dodd-Frank reforms and his regulatory imposition of a cap-and-trade regime actually kick in?

In ordinary circumstances, the notion that re-election vindicates and solidifies a first-term agenda would be justified. But when no-one’s actually seen the transformative achievements of Obama’s first term put into practice, we are in unexplored territory. While quiet popular acceptance of the coming changes is certainly a possibility, I wouldn’t bet on it. Deep dissatisfaction with the concrete results of Obama’s delayed transformation, coupled with a sense of having been fooled by the backloading, could set off a wave of voter anger that confounds conventional expectations.

I play out this scenario in the current issue of National Review, in a piece called “The Fire Next Time.”

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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