Commentary

Channeling the Wrong Kennedy

Perhaps nothing so symbolizes the promise and peril of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as his claim to the mantle of John F. Kennedy.

Obama’s recent endorsement by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy’s glowing op/ed about him in the New York Times hearken back to the glory days of the 1960s.

Obama has repeatedly compared himself to JFK, and his campaign casts itself as the second coming of Camelot. Obama’s supporters see in him the same youthful optimism that made JFK an iconic symbol in the decade.

It was an era when anything seemed possible.

[I]n his appetite for big government, Obama is quite unlike JFK.”

But the surviving Kennedys are also symbols of the darker side of 1960s liberalism: The bloated, bureaucratic welfare state. Teddy Kennedy’s liberalism gave us welfare as we knew it and spent $11 trillion on federal programs fighting poverty without reducing it. It raised taxes until they discouraged work, investment and innovation. It created an ethic of entitlement and dependence on government. In his policy positions, as opposed to his bipartisan rhetoric, Barack Obama calls to mind this side of 1960s liberalism as well.

Indeed, in his appetite for big government, Obama is quite unlike JFK.

JFK called for cutting taxes. “It is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low,” Jack Kennedy said, long before the advent of Supply Side Economics, “and the soundest way to raise revenues in the long run is to cut rates now.”

The increases in government spending during JFK’s term were modest. (It was LBJ, not JFK, who launched the Great Society.) And JFK’s fiscal policies spurred substantial economic growth.

In contrast, there is little in Obama’s policy pronouncements beyond traditional tax and spend liberalism. According to the respected and nonpartisan National Journal, Obama is actually the most liberal U.S. senator, with a voting record actually to the left of Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s self-proclaimed socialist. He has received perfect 100 percent voting records from groups like Americans for Democratic Action, the National Organization for Women and the National Education Association, giving him a slightly more left-wing record than well-known liberals such as Pat Leahy, D-Vt., John Kerry, D-Mass., and … Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

One searches in vain for a new idea among Obama’s policies. Personal accounts for Social Security? Entitlement reform? School choice? Tax cuts? Obama rejects them all, calling such proposals “Social Darwinism.” Instead, Obama offers a traditional laundry list of liberalism: national health insurance, a “living wage” mandate, restrictions on executive pay, taxes on oil companies, more spending on just about everything.

Though he eschews the harsh language of former candidate John Edwards, Obama nonetheless embraces the same class warfare, attacking big business, big oil, big pharma and so on.

JFK reduced the burden of the state on society and unleashed the creative potential of Americans everywhere. At every opportunity in his career, Sen. Ted Kennedy has voted to expand the power, size and scope of government. He sees government as the answer to every problem.

Barack Obama’s language is full of Jack, but his policies are pure Teddy.

Michael D. Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute.