Commentary Magazine


Not Like We Didn’t See this Coming

The Economist, which endorsed Barack Obama for president, is not pleased. Empathizing with Hillary Clinton’s warning that “the Oval Office is no place for on-the-job-training,” they conclude that his “performance has been weaker than those who endorsed his candidacy, including this newspaper, had hoped.” What went wrong?

There are two main reasons for this. The first is Mr Obama’s failure to grapple as fast and as single-mindedly with the economy as he should have done. His stimulus package, though huge, was subcontracted to Congress, which did a mediocre job: too much of the money will arrive too late to be of help in the current crisis. His budget, though in some ways more honest than his predecessor’s, is wildly optimistic. And he has taken too long to produce his plan for dealing with the trillions of dollars of toxic assets which fester on banks’ balance-sheets.

The failure to staff the Treasury is a shocking illustration of administrative drift. . . .

Second, Mr Obama has mishandled his relations with both sides in Congress. Though he campaigned as a centrist and promised an era of post-partisan government, that’s not how he has behaved. His stimulus bill attracted only three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House. This bodes ill for the passage of more difficult projects, such as his big plans for carbon-emissions control and health-care reform.”

That’s a fairly savvy analysis and suggests the Economist had Obama pegged wrong. Yes, there is an element of managerial incompetence, but the real issue is that the Right was correct about Obama: he’s an ultra-liberal at least on domestic policy, not a pragmatic centrist either on policy or in style. His mode of governance — denigrate the opposition, engage in ad hominem attacks, refuse to compromise on substantive policy, disguise radical policy intentions with a haze of meaningless rhetoric — bespeaks someone supremely confident in his ideological views and undaunted by fears (which are slowly creeping up on his Red state colleagues) of having overshot his mandate.

It is therefore unlikely that Obama will change course unless forced by electoral realities or external events. If the next several bond auctions are a bust perhaps then the spend-a-thon will slow. If unemployment rises and his poll numbers fall, perhaps he’ll hold off on burdening employers for just a bit. If he loses 30 or 40 House seats in 2010 he won’t have the legislative latitude to throw up whatever legislation he wants (or to defer to Nancy Pelosi).

But barring these developments it appears we are in for more of the same for the remainder of his term. It’s not what the Economist expected, but it is pretty much what most conservatives did.