In 2008, Barack Obama projected a youthful idealism that inspired millions. When he was elected, even many of us who supported the other guy admired the wave of hope and optimism that swept Obama into office. I, for one, wanted to give him a chance — a chance especially to prove that he was sincere about his post-partisan pledge to bridge America’s red-blue divide. Three dispiriting years into his administration, it is clear that Obama’s idealism is as fraudulent as the post-partisan rhetoric that he no longer even bothers with. He proved that again in his customary manner, with yet another Big Speech to blur into the numbing continuum of Big Speeches that have become the background noise of his presidency.
In Obama’s latest speech, delivered last week in Kansas, he tried on the costume of yet another dead president — this time Teddy Roosevelt — and trotted out yet another new theme for his presidency: “Fairness.” Obama is clearly trying to scramble to the front of the Occupy Wall Street parade, trampling over his legion of Wall Street donors to get there.
Obama put his own spin on recent history. “[T]here are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia,” said the president. Amnesia indeed: Earlier in his speech, Obama recited a supposed explanation of the 2008 housing and financial crash — without once mentioning Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or the role his own party played in pressuring banks to make mortgage loans to people who couldn’t afford them. That’s like giving the history of the Civil War but leaving out the bit about slavery. But to those familiar with Obama’s speeches, the phrase “there are some” is a sure tip-off: It means that the president is setting up one of his famous straw men, where he will present a ridiculously dishonest caricature of his opponents’ views and then self-righteously rail against that caricature.
Sure enough, the president helpfully summarized the views of those afflicted with “amnesia”: “Their philosophy is simple,” said Obama. “We are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. Well, I’m here to say that they are wrong.” No Republicans I know believe that. But I’m sure there are fringe anarchists out there who do, and thank goodness we have a president with the guts to stand up to them.
The president continued offering helpful summations of his opponents’ views: “‘The market will take care of everything,’ they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.
“It’s a simple theory,” the president explained. “It fits well on a bumper sticker.” (At this point, I tried to imagine how gigantic that bumper sticker would have to be to squeeze in the 67 words he used to state the theory.) But “[h]ere’s the problem,” continued Obama. “It doesn’t work. It’s never worked.”
The anarchist amnesiacs might retort that Obama’s record — including the longest period in which unemployment has remained over 8 percent in over 60 years — hardly qualifies him as an expert on what does and doesn’t work. And Obama’s assertion flies in the face of the evidence that the Kennedy tax cuts, the Reagan tax cuts — and even the Bush tax cuts that are so maligned in Democratic talking points — did work.
And what, in Obama’s opinion, does work? Two days after the Kansas speech, the president said this regarding the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project to bring in over 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to the U.S.: “[H]ere’s what I know. However many jobs might be generated by a Keystone pipeline, they’re going to be a lot fewer than the jobs that are created by extending the payroll tax cut and extending unemployment insurance.”
This might sound plausible to those who don’t know any better; it’s infuriating to those who do. Obama is afraid to choose between his union allies who support the pipeline and his environmentalist allies who oppose it: his administration announced last month that it would delay its decision on whether to approve the pipeline until after the 2012 elections. Obama’s politically motivated dithering will likely cost us the Keystone XL project, and the thousands of jobs and secure source of energy that would have come with it.
On the other side of the equation, even Obama’s former economic adviser, Larry Summers, acknowledged that unemployment insurance prolongs unemployment. And there is significant evidence that the temporary payroll tax cut favored by Obama is perhaps the least stimulative tax cut possible — especially if coupled with Obama’s proposal to permanently increase taxes on those who invest and create jobs.
But beyond the farcical economics underlying Obama’s statement, it reveals his worldview on job creation: The preferred way to create jobs is not through a private sector project like Keystone but rather through a government entitlement like unemployment insurance. That’s straight out of the Nancy Pelosi School of Economics.
And speaking of theories that “fit well on a bumper sticker,” Obamanomics boils down to three words: “Tax the Rich.” Obama disingenuously suggests that taxing the rich will enable us to reduce our deficit, afford his lavish “investment” wish list, reduce income equality and improve class mobility. His hawking of “tax the rich” as an all-purpose wonder-cure resembles Herman Cain’s touting of “9-9-9,” but without Cain’s sincerity.
The problem with Obamanomics, other than the fact that it punishes the job-creation we need to get out of this mess, is that it needlessly pits Americans against each other. Obama focuses not on what he’s for — as in pro-growth principles that would benefit us all — but rather on who he’s for and, just as importantly, who he’s against. He says he’s for the middle class, even though his anti-growth policies are a disaster for the middle class. And he’s against the “rich,” however he chooses to define it. He wants us to choose sides. Which side are you on, the one percent or the 99 percent? George W. Bush was pilloried by the left for his “with us or against us” approach to foreign terrorists; Obama is adopting a similar approach to divide his fellow Americans.
In the us-against-them world of Obamanomics, there’s no room for a win-win. That’s why Obama has ignored all pro-growth tax reform proposals, including one from his own deficit commission. There is broad bipartisan support for broadening the tax base by eliminating tax breaks but also lowering rates. Obama, however, would rather preserve the conflict for political purposes than reach for the common ground that is so clearly attainable. He is thus doing what he incessantly accuses his opponents of doing: focusing on the next election and putting party before country.
Pro-growth tax reform is idealistic in the best American tradition. It’s about aspiration, where each of us focuses on what we can achieve for ourselves, our families, our communities and our country. Obamanomics, on the other hand, is about envy and resentment. The focus is not on what we can achieve but rather on how we can prevent the other guy from achieving too much. It’s as fresh as Charles Dickens, and about as relevant as Dickens is to America in the 21st century.
If this is idealism, it is idealism that only a cynic could love.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosted the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.