The consensus on the left today is that they have finally gotten the man they thought they were voting for in 2008. Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural speech was free of the post-partisan eyewash that was a staple of his first presidential campaign. The speech presented him as he is, a liberal ideologue that has little respect for opposing views and no interest in compromising on issues he cares about, like the budget. This was no surprise to conservatives who have never been deluded by the conceit that Obama was above ideology. But it does encourage liberals to believe that, as some are saying, this administration was on the verge of reversing the achievements of the Ronald Reagan era. Listen closely to MSNBC and CNN and you can almost hear the strains of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” as left-wing talkers envision the return of an era in which a permanent Democratic majority would ensure that America was on a permanent long march to a liberal utopia that the right was helpless to halt.
Such triumphalism is almost forgivable on Inauguration Day. But even if we take the president at his word, there is a big difference between our current situation and the world prior to 1981, when the left never doubted that their project would be derailed. Liberalism may be feeling its oats today, but looming over the inaugural parties is the fact that it cannot pay the bill for the party.
While the president paid some lip service to fiscal realities yesterday, the overall tone was one that sought to rekindle confidence in the idea of a liberal narrative which depicts the country on an inexorable path to greater equality as well as more government services to do good. While we should all applaud the idea of equality, which is, as the president notes, integral to our identity as a nation, the attempt to channel the confidence of mid-19th century American liberalism in the early 21st century is bound to be a bust.
Americans came to accept in the 1980s and ’90s that the welfare state had failed to help the poor and was sinking the country in a moral and fiscal morass. But the problem for resurgent liberalism in 2013 is not just that most Americans already know that big government isn’t the answer to every problem, but that we are also aware that we haven’t the money to pay for the existing entitlements that Washington has promised, let alone any new ones.
President Obama can speak as if the cost of his new health care entitlement will not make it even harder to keep the debt from spiraling out of control and even promise more new costly projects. He can pretend that Medicare and Social Security must remain unchanged without bankrupting the country. He can also ignore the fact that the size not just of the federal government but also of local and state governments is fiscally unsustainable. But reality has a way of interfering with even the sweetest liberal fantasies.
Like it or not, liberalism must now face the problem of how to pay the bill for its big-government agenda. That was something that never occurred to Americans in the heyday of liberal political ascendance from the 1930s to the 1960s, as the thought of such limits was not imaginable. But there is no evading the fact that unless entitlements are reformed the whole system will collapse sometime in the coming decades. Liberals never used to worry about paying for their schemes, but now they must.
That is a problem that responsible politicians are struggling with these days, but it is not one that seems to interest the president very much. He prefers to live in a fantasy world in which Washington can go on taxing and spending with impunity and words like deficit and debt are treated as mere details.
Yesterday was an escape from reality for liberals. Let’s hope they and the president enjoyed it. In the real world in which we live the president’s vision of resurgent liberalism leads only to a North American version of Greece.