A State of Denial

Published January 25, 2012

National Review Online

Toward the end of his State of the Union address, President Obama delivered a paragraph that was so blatantly absurd and self contradictory as to actually become clarifying—so incoherent that it shed a bright light on his thinking and his grave dilemma. It’s hard to believe he actually said this, but he did:

I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. That’s why my education reform offers more competition, and more control for schools and States. That’s why we’re getting rid of regulations that don’t work. That’s why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a Government program.

The examples he chose of course jump out as ludicrous: K-12 education in America is thoroughly dominated by the government, and the president has not proposed to make it less so. (And state governments, by the way, are also governments.) “Getting rid of regulations that don’t work” is certainly an unusual way to describe the regulatory agenda of this administration, which has involved a series of unprecedented delegations of authority to regulators (especially in health care and financial regulation) and which continues every day to spew forth an interminable array of costly, complex, and highly assertive rules that will give the federal government (and the executive agencies in particular) previously unimagined discretion over vast swaths of our economy. And “relies on a reformed private market, not a government program” is surely the most unabashedly dishonest and Orwellian way yet devised to describe Obamacare—a law that begins from the premise that the solution to our health care financing problems is to make the government an even greater provider and purchaser of health insurance, would spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decade on yet another health care entitlement program and on the expansion of an unreformed Medicaid system, would micromanage the insurance industry in ways likely to make it even less efficient, would employ even heavier price controls in an otherwise unreformed Medicare system, and would raise half a trillion dollars in taxes on employment, investment, and medical research.

But even more galling than the examples was the very use of the Lincoln quote itself, which makes precisely the opposite point to the one made by the rest of the president’s speech. This speech offered a vision of a profoundly technocratic and activist government, with its hands in every nook and cranny of the nation’s economic life—a government guiding particular business decisions and nudging individual choices through just the right mix of incentives and rules to reach just the right balance between fairness and growth while designing the perfect website for job retraining programs and producing exactly the proper number of “high-tech batteries.” The president described the government’s bailout of the Detroit automakers as a roaring success and then said “What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh.” If he thinks that all the tasks he laid out for government are things that people “cannot do better by themselves” then he must have a very high opinion of how well government can do things, or a very low opinion of how well people can do things by themselves, or (most plausibly) both.

The intensely activist tone of the speech also meant, of course, that no real attention could be paid to what was the dominant theme of our political debates over the past year: Our out-of-control deficits and debt. Indeed, this was probably the foremost purpose of the speech. As he prepares for his reelection campaign, the president is clearly trying to move voters away from a focus on our coming fiscal disaster and toward a renewed focus on public spending and public programs—the outlook that defined the beginning of his administration, before his specific public spending and public programs soured the public on such spending and programs and (having resulted in unprecedented deficits) alarmed the Tea Party movement into being and yielded the 2010 election. But of course, those deficits and debt have only gotten worse, not better. And if we do not bring them under control—above all by reforming our health entitlement programs—we face fiscal prospects that would make an utter joke of the kind of approach to public policy and government embodied by this speech, with its explosion of spending, its barriers to economic growth, and its laughably misguided little millionaire’s surtax. Those prospects, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would involve debilitating levels of debt unlike anything we have experienced in America. This is the future from which the president needs to distract us:

Federal Debt Held by the Public

These projections, especially compared to our fiscal circumstances in past years, also make a mockery of the now familiar nostalgia with which the president opened his speech—harkening back to the meteoric growth of the immediate postwar era in America. Even if his wistful reminiscences of that bright yesterday were better grounded in reality, the fact is that we simply cannot recreate the economic circumstances of those years, when America’s global competitors had just burned each other’s economies to the ground while ours stood ready gallop ahead. It is true that the unique explosive growth of those years also allowed for major expansions of government spending, and persisted despite fairly heavy tax and regulatory burdens. But that does not mean that it was caused by that spending or those burdens. It obviously wasn’t. And under very different circumstances, in which we must effectively compete and innovate in order to grow, we cannot afford such spending or such burdens. We must find other paths to broadly shared prosperity.

But the president does not seem interested in finding those paths. Instead, he prefers to shadowbox the familiar bogeymen held up by progressives for a century and more. Indeed, his striking appeals to replace our raucous republican politics with the model of military discipline at the beginning and the end of the speech offered conspicuous echoes of the progressive longing to overcome politics.

It all adds up to an attempt to shift the political conversation away from reality, as Mitch Daniels’s response so ably showed. But I don’t think it adds up to a very effective political strategy for the president. If tonight’s speech was indeed a preview of his election-year pitch, he’s going to have some problems.

Yuval Levinis the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.

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