Commentary Magazine


Not Living up to Expectations

David Brooks sounds a warning note after looking at polling that strongly suggests the public isn’t interested in bigger government:

The big lesson for the Obama administration is that the American people will continue to support its agenda as long as they think it is competent. It was not automatic that an administration led by a 47-year-old man with little Washington experience would run a professional, smoothly functioning operation. Yet he has. The administration has unveiled a dazzling array of proposals with a high degree of efficiency and managerial skill. This has inspired confidence in his team, if not in the government as a whole.

If that aura of nonideological competence fades, however, support for the agenda will crater. There is little philosophical backing for a government as activist as the one Obama is proposing. Middle-class voters are not willing to hand over higher taxes in exchange for more federal services. The public is significantly to Obama’s right on economic matters and needs constant evidence that he is not trespassing on personal freedom and individual responsibility.

What will dissuade the public that Obama is not all that ”competent”? There is the stimulus package, which was premised on the notion it would keep unemployment below 8%. It hasn’t, and we’ve learned there’s no meaningful oversight of funds. We know that the funds are not being spent quickly enough to do much about the economy. Well, there is the budget. Is it “competent” to spend $3.6 trillion and plunge an entire generation of Americans into a pool of red ink? I’m not seeing the competence, if by competence we mean the execution of effective policies. (And let’s not get into the appointee snafus, the AIG bonus blunder, the interrogation memo disaster, and the ever-hapless Tim Geithner.)

The “aura of non-ideological competence” is based on the media’s marveling that Obama is “getting things done” — which largely consists of passing huge spending bills on strict party-line votes through a Democratic-controlled Congress. An odd sort of non-ideological achievement, indeed.

And what about the substance of his agenda? Nationalized healthcare and cap-and-trade don’t meet Brooks’s formula for success. Both involve tax hikes and significant increases in the size and scope of government. Obama could dump these in favor of more market-oriented policies, but shows no inclination to do so. Indeed, the Obama team is contemplating use of “reconciliation” to force through healthcare reform without the threat of a filibuster. Not very non-ideological, but very activist.

The bottom line: Brooks seems to argue that if Obama weren’t doing what Obama is doing — proposing a massive increase in the size of government, governing with no Republican input or support, and doing a rather mediocre job of restoring the economy — Obama (and all of us) would be in fine shape. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem that Obama is the Obama that Brooks had hoped for. Obama’s actions never really evidence political moderation or wisdom about the limits of government’s ability to refashion American society. Moderation and a love of non-ideological competence are Brooks’s trademarks, but unfortunately, not this president’s.