President Obama is on a bit of a roll in the past few weeks, and he’s likely to build on it tomorrow night at the State of the Union address. His speech at the memorial service in Tucson was what the country needed – no politics, but warm and even inspiring words from the country’s spokesman. Speaking of Christina Green, the youngster who was killed in the melee, he said “I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.” Well-chosen, even heartfelt words.
And his post-election version of triangulation has gathered pace: not only the selection of Bill Daley, Clinton’s trade specialist, to be chief of staff, but other moves as well. Bruce Reed, ex-chair of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in the Clinton years and director of Obama’s Deficit Commission, is now Joe Biden’s chief of staff; Gene Sperling, another Clinton alumnus, is the new head of the National Economic Council. And last Friday, he announced that Jeff Immelt – the head of one of our largest corporations, GE – will head up a new Jobs and Competitiveness Council.
And then, as if to top it off, he announced in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, that he was issuing a new set of instructions to his regulatory agencies that their rules henceforth should all be examined to make sure that they are cost-effective. Recognizing the chilling effect that regulation can have, Obama’s directive aims for a balance, “without unduly interfering with the pursuit of progress and the growth of our economy.”
Wow. Can it be this President has finally awoken to the limitations of dirigiste government? Has a light regulatory hand replaced the president who used to rail against “fat cats” and “Wall Street vs Main Street”? Well, as they say in Missouri, “show me.”
So far, these have been great rhetoric; it remains to be seen if this represents real change we can believe in. Take the appointment of Jeff Immelt, for instance: true, his appointment marks the rare presence of a corporate chieftain in the counsels of the White House. On the other hand, Immelt and his company have long been fans of the Obama agenda. Both Obamacare and the lavish government subsidies for “green energy” have poured lots of your money and mine into the bank accounts of GE subsidiaries. And don’t forget that GE owns NBC and its sister cable station, MSNBC. If there was one media outfit that was wholly in the bag for Obama (with tingling up the legs of their tough newsmen at the very sight of our first African-American president), it was these folks. So it’s not as though they had invited Andrew Carnegie into the White House.
Even more to the point, it’s one thing to talk the talk on regulation; it’s quite another to walk the walk. Obama’s editorial said nothing about rolling back the tens of thousands of pages of new regulation that flow from his signature legislative accomplishments in the first two years, Obamacare and financial market regulatory reform. If he truly believed that onerous regulation was keeping the economy down, there was an obvious place to look.
Indeed, the closer you look, the more this regulatory reform looks like attractive covering for liberal business-as-usual. According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama’s order includes this highly elastic language in its directive to conduct cost-benefit analysis: agencies are to include “values that are difficult or impossible to quantify, including equity, human dignity, fairness, and distributive impacts.” What is that, but an invitation to put a progressive thumb on the scale in favor of “human dignity” instead of economic growth? No wonder the EPA feels confident declaring that its job-killing regulatory campaign against carbon-based energy has resulted in a rule structure “among the most cost-effective in the government.” When you can ascribe billions to airy benefits like these, there is nothing you can’t justify in cost-benefit terms.
So, we’ll see. Conservatives in Washington need to be wary of the coming New Look Obama presidency: moderate-sounding, with muted rhetoric, commitments to jobs and businesses, and “investment” in the nation’s future. Republicans will be painted as obsessively focused on the past – the health care reform in particular, as well as spending practices that are built into the nation’s cost structure. Obama will headlamp himself as being all about the future. You’ll see it start tomorrow night.
But there are some bare-knuckle fights ahead that may strip away this appearance of centrist moderation. The GOP will press relentlessly on Obamacare and more to the point on spending. The upcoming budget, the Republicans’ counter-budget, the debate over lifting the debt ceiling, the funding of the government after the Continuing Resolution expires in March – all of them will focus attention on the issue that sent many to Washington last year.
Obama may yield tactically on some of these issues. And maybe he really truly wants to find ways to get government spending under control. Maybe it was all Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid all along, and Obama merely signed what they sent up to him, reluctant to rock the boat when the country was so fragile. But I doubt it.
So the nice words will be very attractive, and it will look like the President is coming to the center where the independent voters are. It will look like it; that’s why all of our representatives need to say, “show me.”