President Obama got a good laugh from his liberal audience at the nationally televised meeting of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. At least all those who joined in the laughter there had jobs.
“Shovel-ready was not as . . . uh . . . shovel-ready as we expected,” the president jibed. He certainly seemed to be a good sport about it all. One half-expected The Daily Show’s puckish Jon Stewart to chime in: “Maybe you better not quit your day job, dude!” There’s a real problem when the president of the United States feels the need to become the entertainer-in-chief, especially when the joke is about very serious matters that have long-term consequences.
Take the term “shovel-ready.” It became the signature term of none other than Barack Obama as he rushed through a jumbo $787 billion stimulus package in the opening days of his administration. Why must we bypass the normal, drawn-out process of committee hearings, markups, amendments, debates, and extended votes? With the economy in free fall in the days leading up to Obama’s inauguration, there was no time for that, Mr. Obama assured us. This would be like FDR’s Hundred Days. He had only to say a measure was needed to get folks back to work and Congress — especially a Congress filled with make-work, make-hay-while-the-sun-shines liberals — would get cracking.
Even some Republicans, normally the green eyeshade folks, muted their criticisms. They were surely uncomfortable with this gusher of spending. But they didn’t want to be bottom-line skunk at the liberals’ recovery picnic. Reality would not be allowed to intrude on this hurry-up bit of spending projects.
Now, when FDR summoned the nation’s energies (and its wallets) to jump-start the economy with make-work projects, it didn’t really work, either. By 1936, after four years of his “bold experimentation,” the unemployment rate was still 16%. But it had been 25% in the depths of the Great Depression, so most folks gave Roosevelt credit for trying. As Amity Shlaes has admirably demonstrated in her powerful book, The Forgotten Man, much of Roosevelt’s New Deal actually prolonged the Depression.
Still, you have to give Roosevelt credit for this much: when he looked for shovel-ready projects to fund, he actually found them. We have the Appalachian Trail, hundreds of bridges, lots of hydroelectric dams, and, of course, the Tennessee Valley Authority to show for all that spending.
FDR didn’t just shovel money. We got tangible projects from his administration. And millions of Americans to this day give him the credit. Even President Ronald Reagan would tell interviewers in the White House how he voted four times for FDR, despite the fact that his administration worked daily to curb the excesses of big government.
How could President Obama have sat in the U.S. Senate for four years and not know that there are no shovel-ready projects? Every senator who wants to build a post office in, say, Dixon, Illinois, knows you must wait years before putting the first spade to the dirt. Franklin’s cousin Theodore “made the dirt fly in Panama,” but 100 year ago neither the U.S. nor Panama had to do environmental impact studies.
Barack Obama should have known that what he was really selling was snake oil. And his opponents should have been bolder in stopping his raid on the Treasury.