Is Obama Failing? (Part 3)

This article appeared in the Economist on February 10, 2010.
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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

I hope that a year from now you won’t rerun this debate because it will be obvious that America is prospering. But I don’t think that’s the way we’re heading.

We haven’t discussed foreign policy in this debate. One of the attractions of Barack Obama — even to some libertarians — was the prospect of a more restrained foreign policy and an improvement in America’s image abroad. In some respects, Obama has fulfilled those hopes; he is indeed not George W. Bush, and his outreach to the Muslim world may yet bring some long‐​term benefits. But he has doubled our troop commitments in Afghanistan and disappointed those who heard him say in 2008, “I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home.” He enraged the leaders of the world’s most populous nation by imposing tariffs on Chinese tires as a petty favor for American labour unions. His immense confidence in his own worldwide attractiveness turns out not to matter that much when it comes to national interest. Europeans may adore him, but they are not rushing to send troops to Afghanistan. And as he told Time magazine last month about his efforts to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to the bargaining table, “I think we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that.” Indeed.

Civil libertarians also hoped for more from an Obama administration. But in all too many ways, says a constitutional scholar, Jack Balkin, of Yale Law School, Obama is affirming and consolidating the surveillance and detention policies he inherited, making them more likely to endure. The Justice Department, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, claims in court that “The US Government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying — that the Government can never be sued for surveillance that violates federal privacy statutes.”

But to go back to our main theme, Elaine Kamarck says that Mr Obama is not pushing “big government takeovers”. In America we rarely send troops to take over companies. We just offer them subsidies and bailouts, or impose mandates and regulations until their independence and innovation are sufficiently contained. And we are certainly seeing that. Big banks, insurance companies and carmakers all got massive government help, in the first instance from the Bush administration. The Obama administration has converted some of that funding into actual state ownership, and in other cases simply uses the funding as an opening to regulate the firms’ pay, lending and other policies.

Meanwhile, he seeks to use money we don’t have to bring local schools, health care and energy under the direction of Washington.

Everyone in Washington knows that the looming economic catastrophe is the cost of middle‐​class entitlements that are out of control. Social Security and Medicare alone face a $107 trillion unfunded liability. Mr Obama promised to change the way Washington works and to “tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear”. But he has no plan to deal with those hard truths. His new budget simply projects both spending and deficits to soar into the heavens, and it is filled with the same sorts of gimmicks we have come to expect from presidents, gimmicks that probably mean we can expect deficits over the next decade twice as high as the projected $6 trillion.

Every week there’s another scheme to revive the economy: Cash for Clunkers, cash for appliances, cash for homebuyers, cash for small banks, cash for green jobs. It is all a shell game. Money is taken from over there and moved over here. But there is only so much money. Subsidies and tax credits for the government’s idea of the month must come from other programs, or from tax increases, or from borrowing, and then that money cannot be spent elsewhere. You cannot get an economy to grow by shifting money from one pile to another, especially if you are taking it from people who earned it to spend on projects they didn’t choose. Eventually the bills have to be paid.

We’re currently having the slowest recovery in postwar history, perhaps because taxes, regulation and uncertainty tend to discourage lending, investing and hiring. One of Mr Obama’s problems is over‐​promising and under‐​delivering. Sure, as Ms Kamarck says, political candidates promise the moon. But as president, Obama and his advisers told us that unemployment might go as high as 9% without his stimulus package, which would hold the pain to 8%. It took barely three months for that promise to fail, so we have committed $787 billion to little avail. Maybe instead of a laughable promise to freeze a small part of the federal budget, the president could just stop the rest of the stimulus spending.

One frightening possibility is that the Fed’s new, even looser monetary policy will create a Bernanke Bubble, giving us the appearance of a boom in 2010 — great news for Democrats this fall — but leading to inflation in 2011 and the inevitable bust in 2012. For now, though, economic analysts are beginning to wonder whether the soaring deficits might actually cost the United States its AAA bond rating.

Mr Obama has a point when he complains about the situation he inherited. But from Afghanistan to AIG, from state secrets to state subsidies, and certainly including deficits as high as an elephant’s eye, Obama is following lots of Bush policies — and Bush is almost universally regarded as a failure. That’s not a road you want to stay on.

Has Mr Obama failed? Of course it’s too early to say that. But is he headed that way? Let’s go to the tape: His policies are bad for the country; they expand government, reduce freedom and slow the economic recovery. The policies that he cannot implement by executive order have become bogged down in Congress as public opposition mounts. Since he was elected, his party has lost three elections for governor and senator. Public opinion has shifted so sharply against him that last week pundits began speculating that the Republican Party might take back the Senate. Mere months after an outpouring of articles hailing the end of Reaganism and the return of activist government, he has caused the resurgence of small‐​government attitudes. He aspired to be a transformational president who would “remake this nation”. He may well be doing so in two ways: giving us a substantially larger government, and simultaneously reviving free‐​market, limited‐​government ideology among a broader public.

That doesn’t sound like success.