Will it be impossible to prevent a reelected President Obama from transforming America into something resembling a European welfare state? Or will citizens rise to decisive action in defense of limited government and the Constitution? Conservatives will face that question in 2013 should the president see victory this year, because either of these scenarios is entirely possible. And it is also possible, paradoxically, that the worst case could be the best one.
Although Obama has been notably reluctant to lay out his plans for the future, his second-term agenda is easy enough to divine. The president will consolidate the legislative gains of his first term (e.g., Obamacare and Dodd-Frank) and will employ regulatory fiat to impose other policies on a reluctant nation (e.g., cap-and-trade and comprehensive immigration reform).
Many conservatives believe that Obama’s reelection would be tantamount to the end of limited-government America as we’ve known it. The Founders made it difficult to enact large-scale change, yet equally challenging to undo such a transformation once it is entrenched. With four more years to cement his program in place, this view goes, the things that distinguish America from Europe’s centralized and redistributive regulatory states will largely pass from the scene.
Plausible as that scenario is, another possibility exists. Precisely because Obama’s agenda is transformative, its full realization in a second presidential term could ignite a grass-roots rebellion that would make the tea-party uprising of 2009 pale by comparison. After all, he has carefully back-loaded the most controversial provisions of health-care reform, financial regulation, and a host of other policy initiatives into his second term. To this day, few Americans have a clear conception of the changes that lie in store for them if the president wins another four years, and Candidate Obama obviously means to keep it that way. Yet the very tactics of obfuscation and delay that were designed to lull the public into passivity in 2012 could provoke a political firestorm in 2013. If that happens, the president’s agenda could be stymied.
Consider Obamacare, at once the most familiar part of that agenda and one of the most mysterious. With the law and its growing penumbra of regulations now running several times the length of the Bible, Obamacare has spawned a small army of conservative policy wonks warning of its consequences. It tries to square a circle by extending insurance coverage to millions of Americans without providing for a comparable increase in the number of physicians. If anything, its heavy-handed regulations are set to drive doctors out of the profession.
This and other features of the law have set the stage for deep dissatisfaction in nearly every segment of the population. Seniors will be hardest hit, as doctors increasingly refuse to see Medicare patients and the controversial new Independent Payment Advisory Board (a.k.a. the “death panel”) begins de facto rationing of care. At the same time, younger patients face especially steep premium increases. The newly covered poor may find doctors largely unavailable, and all patients will likely have to wait longer for appointments. Taxes hidden in the bill will kick in, employers may stop providing coverage, and the public will conclude that President Obama’s unconditional promise that if you liked your doctor you could keep your doctor was false and even deceptive.
A reelected President Obama would veto any attempt to repeal Obamacare, and this is legitimate cause for pessimism. Yet if the mere prospect of Obamacare kicked up a tea-party rebellion in 2009, what will happen when the reality hits?
The Medicare board, which is structurally necessary to the reform, still faces a constitutional challenge. If the country is up in arms, it’s conceivable that the Supreme Court could be bolder when it rules on Obamacare again. And how would a Congress facing a repeat of the 2010 tea-party sweep behave? Symbolic showdowns over partial or complete Obamacare-repeal votes, or a refusal to appropriate funds necessary to administer parts of the program, could keep the issue front and center and set up the Republicans to seize control of the Senate in 2014. That, in turn, could deprive Obama of his hope of shifting the Supreme Court decisively to the left before the end of his second term.
And Obamacare, it turns out, is only the beginning. Consider ObamaCore.
Most Americans have no idea that the president has circumvented legal and constitutional prohibitions and effectively imposed a national K–12 curriculum on the states. Relying on work financed by deep-pocketed and like-minded outside groups such as the Gates Foundation, his Department of Education conditioned states’ eligibility for federal Race to the Top funding on their “voluntary” adoption of Common Core education standards (a set of benchmarks for student achievement that were compiled by an independent panel shortly before Race to the Top began). The curriculum and testing system needed to put the Common Core into practice will be dumbed down (little classic literature, “fuzzy” math) and politically correct (“multicultural” history).
The Common Core also could set off a new wave of tea-party protests in the 45 states that have adopted its standards. In fact, the rebellion has already started. Although many states have carefully put off establishment of the Common Core’s curriculum and testing system until Obama’s second term, elsewhere some elements are already in place. Their introduction has spawned tea-party-led protest movements in Indiana and Utah, and when the new curriculum hits in earnest in a second Obama term, the rebellion is likely to spread, and states may well withdraw from the program.
Immigration is another issue that fuels the popular fires, which is why Obama avoided it until his recent unilateral provision of amnesty to young illegal immigrants. You can argue that a president who secures reelection in the wake of so blatantly unconstitutional an act will have little to fear from any further opposition, and Obama will probably proceed on that premise. Yet it’s entirely possible that moves to extend amnesty to illegal-immigrant adults by executive fiat will backfire, especially in an atmosphere supercharged by anger at Obama’s other second-term surprises.
And the populist aspect of a second-term backlash may be only the half of it. How will America’s business community react to the full-on arrival of Obama’s economic agenda? Although substantially won over by Obama in 2008, business has soured on the president since then, alienated by his demonizing rhetoric and his administration’s regulatory policies. Leery of a president who helps his friends and punishes his enemies, businesses might prefer to avoid controversy in a second Obama term. But it’s also possible that the fruition of Obama’s regulatory agenda, including expensive health-care entitlements, pro-union policies, and onerous environmental requirements, could push even America’s cautious business community into open and active opposition.
In particular, Dodd-Frank’s massive regulatory apparatus is a set of blanks set to be filled in during a second Obama term. The economic uncertainty that this legislation has created already may have dampened growth more than Obamacare has, and even Democrats are beginning to worry about the law. Also, with its politically toxic cap-and-trade scheme having been rejected by Congress, the Obama administration is pushing to impose an equivalent regulatory regime on carbon emissions via the EPA. The unpopularity of Obama’s assault on coal and other fossil fuels has forced the administration to back off a bit during the election, but a second term will see these efforts renewed with a vengeance. Will business submit, or could the regulatory avalanche of a fully enacted Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, combined with the imposition of a de facto cap-and-trade regime by the EPA, push business back into the more active alignment it had with Republicans during the Reagan administration?
And what will the coming regulatory avalanche do to the economy? Up to now growth has been inhibited by uncertainty about Obama’s plans and political future. Will the arrival of certainty free up business to adjust to the new environment, or will the harsh reality of an economy falling increasingly under government control produce another downturn? An EPA-orchestrated anti-carbon campaign will do no wonders for energy prices, either.
The tone for a second Obama term could be set within months if Republicans allow the president to jump off a fiscal cliff. With massive tax hikes and spending cuts already built into current law, the GOP may refuse Obama’s conditions for a deal to avoid them, saddling him with their political and economic consequences. Right now, Republicans are wary that Obama’s charges of obstructionism will stick. But if the public doesn’t like what it sees when Obama’s policies spring fully to life, obstructionism may get a good name.
Presidents are powerful, but so is an aroused populace in a democracy. There may be much that Congress and the courts can do, short of veto overrides, to hold Obama’s ambitions in check. America’s response to the reality of Obama’s transformative agenda could be far more telling than the country’s reaction to a likable candidate adept at keeping his most controversial plans under wraps.
With any luck, we’ll never find out.
– Mr. Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.