Is Obama Failing? (Part 2)

February 5, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Economist on February 5, 2010.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article is David Boaz’s rebuttal in a larger debate on The Economist’s website.

If the measure of failure for President Obama is whether it looks like he is on the road to slowing the rise of the oceans, ending a war and restoring our image as the last, best hope on Earth, then he doesn’t look so good. Elaine Kamarck proposes a stricter test: Has he encountered a swift and deadly drop in his personal reputation to Nixonian depths?

If we set a standard somewhere between these extremes, then Mr Obama does seem to be on shaky ground. His policies are not working, his ability to drive his agenda seems to have ground to a halt and the political environment has shifted sharply against him.

Ms Kamarck is right to say that Mr and Mrs Obama still command great personal respect. He looks good by comparison with such scandalous rivals as John Edwards. A recent Washington Post feature hailed the inspiring example he has set for young African‐​Americans, and given the plight of young people in many black communities, that is an achievement worth celebrating.

Actually, his personal approval rating has fallen from near 70% to just above 50%, though I do think the broad centre of Americans still admire him. But he has lost his aura—that “tingle up my leg,” “agent of transformation,” “quantum leap in American consciousness,” “sort of God” image—that journalists and many voters swooned over. That matters when your personal power is part of your political strategy. A Democratic congressman told his home‐​state paper last month that Obama had wooed Blue Dog Democrats by telling them that health care would go better this time than in 1994 because “the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me”.

One question here is how do you measure a politician’s failure. Is it, for instance, a failure to get his policies enacted, or his success in enacting bad policies? Surveys of historians always give high marks to presidents who expanded government or fought wars. Washington’s most‐​quoted political scientist, Norman Ornstein, recently defended the productivity of the current Congress; his article illustrated that to the Washington establishment the very definition of a productive Congress is the spending of more taxpayers’ money, the creation of new agencies and bureaucracies, and the concentration of more power in the hands of federal regulators. Citizens might prefer a government that kept us out of war, let the economy grow, and left us alone.

That gets us to the problem of trust in government, which Ms Kamarck warned him back in 2008 not to ignore. One thing that surely reduces trust is the growing size and scope of government. When the federal government confined itself to a limited range of constitutional duties, voters trusted it more. Over the past few decades, as government took on more and more duties, trust fell. An expansive government is less able to satisfy everyone, even as it doles out more benefits to more people. The more complex and encompassing a policy gets, the more different aspects of life it touches. If government is going to fund and direct health care, then people are going to fight over whether it will cover abortion or Christian Science treatments; which providers or patients will get less than they expected; which treatments will be denied and so on. Each one of those decisions will reduce someone’s trust in government to do the right thing.

In her 2008 study Ms Kamarck warned that Americans were evenly split on whether they want more activist government (43% for, 43% against). The numbers may be worse than that. As I mentioned previously, in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll, Americans said they prefer “smaller government and fewer services” to “larger government with more services” by 58% to 38%. And when you remind people that the cost of more services is higher taxes, and ask them whether they prefer a smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes or a more active government with more services and higher taxes, you get a margin of 66% to 22% in favour of smaller government (Rasmussen Reports, December).

In a country where government is already larger than the voters would prefer, and trust in government is low, it is difficult to advance ambitious activist programmes, unless there’s a crisis. For 200 years the US government has tended to expand during wars and economic crises. After the 9/11 attacks we got the Patriot Act, federalisation of airport screeners, the Department of Homeland Security, rapid spending increases and arguably the war in Iraq. After the financial crisis of 2008 we got expanded powers for the Federal Reserve, Wall Street bailouts, takeovers of financial companies and carmakers and the kitchen‐​sink spending bill known as stimulus. Moreover, the Obama administration tried to present its programme of expanded federal control over energy, education, and health care as a response to the crisis.

Mr Obama now seems to have switched tactics. He is campaigning as a trust‐​busting, bank‐​bashing populist who is here to take on the big boys. But that is a problem for him. Not only was his career boosted by the biggest boys in Washington—Tom Daschle, Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy—he has also been a Wall Street man. He took in more money from Wall Street than John McCain did, and four times as much money from lawyers and lobbyists, and he reappointed or promoted two of the three architects of the Wall Street bailout. Huey Long he ain’t.

And then there is the basic cognitive dissonance in his new theme, as George F. Will noted after the state‐​of‐​the‐​union address: “Obama’s leitmotif is: Washington is disappointing, Washington is annoying, Washington is dysfunctional, Washington is corrupt, verily Washington is toxic—yet Washington should conscript a substantially larger share of GDP, and Washington should exercise vast new controls over health care, energy, K-12 education, etc.”

Some analysts note that Ronald Reagan had low ratings at this point in his term, and a bad midterm election, but came back strong. As it turns out, tax cuts, spending restraint, deregulation and sound money tend to create strong economic recoveries. Threats of tax hikes, unprecedented levels of deficits, a wave of new regulations and fears about Fed monetisation may not.

Has Mr Obama failed, a year into his term? Of course not. But that’s the direction he’s headed.

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