Mr. Obama’s Nowhere Discussions
President Obama could rather easily restore his credibility. But to do so, he would have to stop talking and start making hard policy decisions.
Barack Obama has a marvelous way of sounding innovative, fresh, and novel while offering stale, predictable bromides. His policies at home are an extension of LBJ’s old Great Society. Abroad we’ve been getting a more sonorous version of Jimmy Carter’s global self-righteous sermonizing.
The public wanted a racially transcendent figure and got instead a Chicago ward boss. The problem now for Mr. Obama — reflected in growing popular discontent — is that on matters of debt, taxes, energy, jobs, and race, he apparently has very little new to offer. He just serves up in new wording the them/us divides of the past.
We are at a point where each new proposed federal initiative — health care, cap-and-trade, a “jobs bill,” stimulus, education — is synonymous with more debt. Mr. Obama has exhausted the time-honored Beltway gimmicks of promising to root out “fraud and abuse,” of “streaming” or “reinventing” government, of “freezing” discretionary spending.
His proposed restoration of the Clinton income-tax rates does not come in a vacuum, but coincides with massive new taxes imposed by the states, health-care surcharges, and proposed raising of the caps on income subject to payroll taxes. As the deficit still grows, talk of a new federal value-added tax spreads.
In other words, when one piles up over $3 trillion in debt in less than two years of governance, all the soaring rhetoric in the world, all the borrowing from Japan and China, and all the new taxes cannot change the fact that the money is running out. There really is a finite sum that we can continue to borrow at low interest or to collect in taxes from “them.” End of discussion.
Obama has never addressed our dependence on imported oil, other than by borrowing billions to subsidize wind and solar power, alternative energy sources that so far have been more inspirational than concrete in easing the immediate energy crunch. When the worldwide economy rebounds (and it will, regardless of the degree of American “stimulus”), the price of gas at the pump will soar. It is well over $3 a gallon right now in California.
Again, all the gimmicks in the world will not change our immediate need for foreign fuel. Loud but disingenuous pledges to drill offshore and tap new gas fields do not actually equate to pumping more oil and tapping more natural gas in places like Alaska and off the California and Florida coasts. Bold new statements about nuclear power matter little; that we haven’t built a plant in three decades matters a lot.
So Mr. Obama can once again soar with “millions of new green jobs” and point to all sorts of innovative new energy sources; but for the next five years rising gas and power prices will crush the American public unless he is serious about developing the energy sources we have that could carry us through the crisis until private enterprise creates viable alternatively fueled transportation and electrical production. End of discussion.
Unemployment seems stuck at right under 10 percent. When it was under 6 percent during the 2004 campaign, the media tore George Bush apart with the charge of a “jobless recovery.” That’s not what they’re saying now. Instead we hear of an ongoing recovery from the downturn. But we won’t get robust job growth until Mr. Obama comes clean with the private sector and honestly lists how much additional revenue it will need to generate to pay his higher taxes.
The psychology of uncertainty really does matter. As long as those in industry and commerce hear that the government is the solution to the problems that they supposedly created, browbeaten individuals will not take risks and begin hiring. All the populist rhetoric, all the sympathetic statistical gymnastics from the liberal pundits, all the euphemisms of “jobs saved,” still won’t change the fact that American business believes Mr. Obama wants to take more of their money to redistribute rather than empowering them to hire and make a profit. Again, end of discussion.
Mr. Obama is also at an impasse in matters of race. His promise of a postracial era was wounded by the revelations about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his own racialist quips about “typical” white people, those who “cling” to guns and religion, and police who indulge in racial stereotyping and who act “stupidly.” His pledge was put into a coma with Van Jones’s racist remarks, Eric Holder’s “cowards” smear, and Justice Sotomayor’s lectures about the superiority of a “wise Latina.”
Fairly or not, the president has lost all credibility as a racial uniter. The public now expects an elite to mine any trace of racial insensitivity in order to create grievances, bank sympathy, and translate that into political capital — while avoiding the promised honest discussion about race.
That taboo debate would inevitably address the degree to which the depressing per capita statistics on incarceration, illegitimacy, violent crime, gangs, entitlement dependency, and lack of education within the African-American community are due to residual racism, and to what degree they stem from a failure of the black leadership to address personal responsibility, or the disastrous entitlement policies of the federal government. Giving preference to the children of a Valerie Jarrett, an Eric Holder, or a Barack Obama to enter Harvard or Yale, or wading out into a crowd of tea-partiers in hopes of snagging a racial slur for political purposes, does nothing to alleviate the tragedy in the D.C. school system or the implosion of Detroit.
So we know what lies ahead for the next two years. Sympathetic observers in the media will detect racism in the tea parties and in non-mainstream-media coverage of Mr. Obama’s disappointing performance. As never before, any African-American politician mired in ethics problems (e.g., Charles Rangel) or facing political oblivion (e.g., David Paterson) will claim he is a victim of racial intolerance.
Privately, a majority of Americans accepts that the African-American elite enjoys a particular leeway in promiscuously leveling accusations of racism — and that such exemption from criticism ultimately derives from the fact that on a percentage basis much of the African-American community is not doing as well as the rest of America, and the culprit must be either racism or a lack of government financial assistance. End of discussion.
In short, we are witnessing a public soon asked to pay higher taxes as the debt grows and jobs remain scarce, while its energy costs spike — and popular protests over any and all of that earn charges of racism.
Mr. Obama could rather easily restore his credibility by offering a plan to balance the budget that matched his tax hikes with tough budget cuts. He could offer a jobs plan centered on incentives for business and psychological support for entrepreneurs. He could offer a landmark new tax code that rewards income and savings, and taxes consumption. A multifaceted energy program might tap all the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear power we could produce as a bridge to next-generation fuels without bankrupting the Treasury or endangering our autonomy. And a fair-minded discussion of race would explore how obsession with elite racial grievances has little to do with the causes of a too-large African-American underclass.
Until then, the more mellifluously the president lectures, the more he will exhaust the voters.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.