Barack Obama has all but conceded his lame-duck status. His State of the Union address was bereft of big ideas. And his declaration that he will use his “pen and a phone” to issue a raft of executive orders is an admission of political impotence — a presidency reduced to small-ball initiatives like creating “myRA” savings accounts and raising the minimum wage for federal contractors.
The one exception — his one last shot at a major legislative achievement — was comprehensive immigration reform. But that isn’t happening either.
And the reason can be summed up in one word: Obamacare.
“Comprehensive” is Washington-speak for “big.” And in the wake of the Obamacare debacle, no one is interested in anything big from Barack Obama.
“I try to focus not on the fumbles but on the next plan,” Obama said this weekend. But when you fumble as spectacularly as the president did with Obamacare, people don’t trust your next plan.
It’s not just that Americans don’t trust the president’s competence. Increasingly, they don’t trust him — period. A majority believe the president passed Obamacare on the basis of a lie. And when you lie to people, they stop listening to you. Obama’s State of the Union address garnered the lowest ratings of any president in 14 years — with 19 million fewer viewers than his first address in 2009. Obama can’t rally the country around big ideas when millions of Americans are tuning him out.
And Obama certainly can’t rally Congress around big ideas when he is simultaneously declaring his intention to circumvent it. Every time Obama mentions using his “pen and a phone,” he reminds Republicans that he can undo any immigration deal he reaches with them with a stroke of his pen — gutting border-enforcement provisions while pocketing legalization. As Paul Ryan, a leading GOP supporter of immigration reform, put it this weekend, “We have an increasingly lawless presidency, where he is actually doing the job of Congress, writing new policies and new laws without going through Congress. . . . We don’t trust the president to enforce the law.”
Ryan is right. Whether it is ignoring the law that requires him to suspend U.S. assistance to Egypt following a coup, or delaying the implementation of the Obamacare employer mandate even though nothing in the law permits him to do so, or issuing an executive order directing immigration officers to no longer deport an entire class of illegal immigrants who came here as children, regardless of individual circumstances — Obama has repeatedly shown his contempt for the law. Through his words (“you can keep your plan”), actions (selectively enforcing the law) and incompetence ( Healthcare.gov), Obama has eroded the trust needed to do big things. And that makes it unlikely we will see any major initiatives signed into law for the remainder of his time in office.
But the damage is deeper than the impact on Obama’s closing years in office. Americans have lost confidence not only in Obama’s competence but also in the competence of the federal government. And therein lies the great, unintended conservative achievement of the Obama presidency: Barack Obama has done more to discredit the cause of big government than a thousand Reagan speeches ever did.
After five years of Obama, 72 percent of Americans now say big government is the biggest threat to our country — the highest that number has been in 50 years of polling. Even 56 percent of Democrats agree. In other words, when people look back at the Obama era, they will not say, as he hoped, that this is the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow. They will say it was the moment when the rise in support for big government began to slow and, indeed, reverse.
For the next quarter-century, any time a liberal politician proposes a big-government program, all conservatives will have to say to discredit it is: “It’s just another Obamacare.”
That, in the end, will be this president’s lasting achievement — what Obama will ultimately be remembered for long after his presidency is over.