Obama and the Left more generally expected the financial meltdown of 2008 and the resulting recession to undermine the public’s faith in the private sector. As they pushed the Great Depression narrative, they strived to make way for a new, New Deal, in which the public would be willing to accept (in what had heretofore been private-sector decision-making) a far greater degree of government intervention than had been attempted in decades. Government would be entrusted to seize car companies, regulate executive compensation, and direct lending practices. But the “cure” for what supposedly ailed the American economy would not be limited to economic matters or to financial regulation. Obama spoke of a “new foundation,” meaning that government would also seek to expand its reach into health care, as well as to regulate all industries’ carbon emissions. A larger government, higher taxes, and a shrunken realm of private decision making would ensue.
But the public remained stubbornly resistant to government power grabs. The increase in spending and massive accumulation of debt spooked them. The obvious inability of the government to “create or save” jobs and its scatterbrained rush to pass health-care reform (thus taking over a sixth of the economy) did not endear to the public the prospect of a bigger, more powerful government. After less than a full year of Democratic control, the public’s faith in big government is on the decline.
It is not only Tea Party protestors and town-hall attendees who have recoiled against the overreach of the Obama agenda. It is the mass of ordinarily nonpartisan independents who have looked upon the corrupt Cash for Cloture deals and the government spend-a-thon with unease. They may not be enamored of big business, but neither are they excited by the prospect of big government, let alone a big government in league with big insurance companies.
Then along comes the Christmas Day bombing plot. The Obama team stumbles about like hapless bureaucrats. First denial that anything much was wrong and then the acknowledgment that yes, they had failed to do their jobs. The “solution” is a flurry of reports and reviews. And we expect to see a series of bureaucratic shuffling, some personnel departures, and some “reforms” that don’t amount to much at all other than vows to do what we thought the government was supposed to be doing since 9/11. Meanwhile, the public sees that the only real line of defense comes from private citizens. Their government is, in its most fundamental task, not to be trusted.
Obama’s new New Deal initiatives have not worked out as planned. Only a fraction of that ambitious agenda has been enacted. The public, including nonpartisan independents, has been jarred by the ambition of Obama’s designs. Large majorities are concerned about the prospect of tax hikes, a massive deficit, and an overactive government. Moreover, there is a growing sense, made worse by the bungling of the Christmas Day bombing, that rather than improve governance, the Obama administration has made things worse.
It is ironic in the extreme that Obama has been unable to dazzle the public with his effectiveness and, more generally, to impress Americans with the ability of the government to reorder society and improve their lives. It was, of course, the Democrats’ critique of the Bush administration’s competence — its handling of Katrina, the hapless Alberto Gonzales Justice Department, the Walter Reed scandal, the failure of financial oversight, and the mishandling of the pre-surge Iraq war – that formed the basis of their winning campaign rhetoric in 2006 and 2008. The Left assured us that sloth or distain for governance were at the root of the Bush administration’s failures but that its own candidates, graduated from the finest schools and enthusiastic proponents of government, would spare Americans from incompetence and corruption and would, moreover, rescue us from the excesses of the private sector. Washington was the place where “good ideas went to die,” Obama told us in the campaign. Puffed up with their own credentials and convinced that they were smarter than all who came before them, the members of Obama’s team assured us that this administration would be different. We were to get a cabinet of “geniuses.” Diplomacy was to be “smarter,” science would rule the day, and ideology was out. But alas it was not to be. The basic tasks of government — vetting, not scaring the populace (with a low Air Force One flyover), and rendering a timely decision on war strategy — seemed at times utterly beyond them.
It was perhaps unfortunate that Obama himself showed so little interest in the details of major domestic legislation. It became evident that, really, any health-care bill would do, so long as Obama got his signing ceremony. So we are on the verge of pasing a bill indefensible on the merits and which the public detests. And if Congress wanted to pass a junk-filled stimulus bill, that was alright with Obama as well. Now the public rightly regards it as a failure, a clumsily constructed waste of their tax dollars. We learned that the smart set really didn’t care about getting exquisitely crafted legislation passed; they simply wanted to demonstrate their own political muscle.
But the heart of the problem was not in a lack of competence or attention to detail but in arrogance — the hubris of believing that government bureaucracies could micromanage complex decisions and order the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans without severe adverse consequences. Never do Obama and his minions seem to recognize that centralizing and regulating millions and millions of intricate interactions is fraught with peril. They never do acknowledge that the track record of government in duplicating and supplanting free markets and individual decision-making is a poor one indeed. They certainly don’t seem to grasp the notion that expanding government and adding trillions to expenditures would merely multiply the opportunities for fraud, corruption, and waste.
So in the end the Obama team has not succeeded in persuading Americans that government should do more, spend more, and be trusted more. For decades, conservatives have made principled arguments as to the dangers of avaricious government, but experience is often the best teacher. After a year of governance by the Obama administration, the public has not learned to love big government but instead has relearned that it is wise to be wary of a growing and intrusive federal government. Had the Obama team been more competent and less ambitious, they might have, by small and irreversible steps, made the case for their ambitious agenda and inured the public to the steady expansion of the public sector. That didn’t happen, however, and the result is a new resurgence of anti-government populism and a fair amount of anger. Americans are reaching the conclusion that even when it comes to the most essential function of government, protecting them from foreign enemies, they are being ill-served. Perhaps if government did less, it would attend with greater focus to its most essential tasks.
The Bush administration never recovered the public’s confidence after Katrina. Americans had seen enough and thereafter tuned out. We will see if the Obama team can avoid that fate after its first year. It might help their cause if they tried to do less, focused more on the business of governing, and spent less time and effort attacking political enemies and recycling shopworn campaign rhetoric. They won’t likely again enjoy the level of goodwill and support that greeted them in the initial days of the administration, but they can perhaps recover a measure of the public’s respect by sober, modest, and competent governance.