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Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie -- Obama's Domestic Agenda Teeters
What the new president has not quite grasped is that the American people understand both irony and cognitive dissonance. Instead, Obama has mistaken his personal popularity for a national predilection toward emergency-driven central planning. He doesn't get that Americans prefer the slower process of building political consensus based on reality, and at least a semblance of rational deliberation rather than one sky-is-falling legislative session after another.
On this last point, Obama is a perfect extension of Bush's worst trait as president. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration pushed through the Patriot Act, a massive, transformative piece of legislation that plainly went unread even as Congress overwhelmingly voted aye. Bush whipped up an atmosphere of crisis every time he sensed a restive Congress or a dissatisfied electorate. And at the end of his tenure, he rammed through the TARP bailout at warp speed, arguing that the United States yet again faced catastrophe at the hands of an existential threat.
But contrary to the dreams of dystopians and paranoiacs everywhere, there simply is no outside threat to the American way of life. No country can challenge us militarily; no economic system stands to dislodge capitalism; no terrorist group can do anything more than land the occasional (if horrendous) blow. And as history has shown, the U.S. economy is resilient enough to overcome the worst-laid plans from the White House.
Bush learned the hard way that running government as a perpetual crisis machine leads to bad policy and public fatigue. Obama's insistence on taking advantage of a crisis to push through every item on the progressive checklist right now is threatening to complete that cycle within his first year.
What are his options? First, stop doing harm. Throwing money all over the economy (and especially to sectors that match up with Democratic interests) is the shortest path to what Margaret Thatcher described as the inherent flaw in socialism: Eventually you run out of other people's money.
No matter how many fantastical multipliers Obama ascribes to government spending, with each day comes refutation of the administration's promises on jobs and economic growth. Even his chief source on the topic, economic adviser Christina Romer, now grants that calculating jobs "created or saved" by Team Obama is simply impossible.
Which leads to the second point: Stop it with the magical realism already.
Save terms such as "fiscal responsibility" for policies that at least minimally resemble that notion. Don't pretend that a budget that doubles the national debt in five years and triples it in 10 is the work of politicians tackling "the difficult choices." Americans have a pretty good (if slow-to-activate) B.S. detector, and the more you mislead them now, the worse they'll punish you later. Toward that end, producing real transparency instead of broken promises is the first step toward building credibility.
That the administration is now spending millions of dollars to revamp its useless stimulus-tracking site Recovery.gov is one more indication that, post-Bush, the White House still thinks of citizens as marks to be rolled.
Finally, it's time to connect the poster boy for hope to the original Man From Hope. After Bill Clinton bit off more domestic policy than even he could chew, leading to a Republican rout in the midterm elections of 1994, the 42nd president refocused his political intelligence on keeping his ambitions and, as a result, the size of government growth, limited. Though there is much to complain about in his record, the broad prosperity and mostly sound economic policy under his watch aren't included.
This shouldn't be a difficult task for Obama. As a political animal, he has always resembled Clinton more than Carter. This might help him avoid the Carteresque pileup he's driving into. Far more important, it just might help the rest of us.
Nick Gillespie is the editor of Reason.com and Reason.tv. Matt Welch is editor of Reason magazine. They will discuss this article online at 11 a.m. on Monday at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.