Prometheus Unbound — 23 January 2013

No more Mr. Moderate Guy.  The mask is off.  Barack Obama has fearlessly, unapologetically summoned his inner liberal, and laid it out for all to see.

The President’s inaugural address, as has been remarked by commentators on both left and right, is his own personal declaration of independence.  No longer will he be confused with the pragmatic centrist that his apologists in the media pretended they saw for the last four years.  He is a man of the Left.

The speech was a paean to activist government, festooned with words like “together” and “we” and even “collective action.”  He made an obligatory nod toward Americans’ “skepticism” toward central government, and the “fiction” that all our problems can be solved by government alone – and then went on to extoll that very central government and what it has done and can do for our people.

What is remarkable to me about this speech is that it ignores almost completely the transcendent issue of our time.  The country is broke.  We cannot possibly make good on the promises we have made in our entitlement programs; we cannot even pay for our current expenses – our taxes only pay for 60% of our annual outlays.  And our budget conflicts are so acrimonious that the best we can squeeze out – and this only after weeks of brinksmanship and rushed deal-making at the 11th hour – is a sliver of spending cuts or a small bump in revenues.  The whole process is so dysfunctional that it makes the Everest of our financial problems completely insurmountable.

But this President doesn’t seem to care.  Late last year, when they were trying to negotiate over the fiscal cliff, Obama said to House Speaker John Boehner, “we don’t have a spending problem.”  He evidently views our fiscal predicament as a result of health care expenses; I expect he believes Obamacare will go far to address that problem when it comes into force (if he does, he may be the only one in the country to think so).

And so, after a light nod toward the “hard choices” we must make to reduce the cost of health care and reduce the deficit, he goes on to insist that neither the Big Three entitlements (Big Four, if you include Obamacare) nor the “investments” we want to make to secure our future should be compromised.

The one indisputable factor that has the best chance of helping us square the circle of our financial woes is economic growth.  Robust, energetic, above-trend economic growth.  The kind of growth we enjoyed when a previous President – Ronald Reagan – tackled a severe recession with tax reform, spending restraint, and regulatory relief.  Instead of Reaganesque 5-7% growth rates, however, this President has brought us anemic growth rates of around 2%.  That’s not enough to put people to work; the only reason our unemployment rate is below 9% today is because millions of people have quit looking for work and have dropped out of the statistics.

And yet, this speech says next to nothing about fostering growth.  When he does mention it, it is in a decidedly left-leaning context: that it is somehow through his Green Energy revolution that we will “maintain our economic vitality.”  Of course, the true economic impact of his global-warming policies will be to increase the cost of energy in this country and slow rather than increase the speed of economic growth.  Ironically, the great development going on right now that has the potential of kicking our economy into the next level of orbit is the shale oil and natural gas fracking revolution – and this is precisely the sort of thing Obama’s policies have been against.

Another great potential source of economic growth is trade – one recalls that Obama made a promise to double our exports between 2010 and 2015.  And yet, the only free trade agreements that were approved during his first four years were those negotiated by the Bush Administration; not a single free trade agreement – either bilateral or multi-lateral – has been signed by this administration.  Was there any mention of trade in this speech, or of any progress toward that export goal?  You guess.

Instead of dealing with these critical issues – the ones that, if resolved, will put people back to work and bring prosperity back to this country – the President’s speech was a series of kisses to the demographic groups that returned him to power – minorities, women, youth, gays.

I listened to talking heads on MSNBC glowing about how “inclusive” his speech was, and it struck me: this is how liberals view the concept of inclusive.  There’s something for Charlie, here’s a trinket for Jane, and I’ve got this cute little tchotchke for Beth; I have something for everybody, nobody gets left out.  It’s like Santa Claus.

Conservatives don’t play that game for two reasons – first, most of the handout trinkets are at the end of the day money, and that is in dreadfully short supply at the moment.  Handing them out to keep constituencies happy is unwise and unproductive.  Secondly, and much more important, inclusive to us means that we are one people, not a collection of subgroups each with its own demands.  If we are, for instance, truly color-blind, then that doesn’t mean giving minorities an extra boost, it means treating all the same regardless of color.  (Despite liberals’ repeated slurs about Republicans being an old white man’s party, there are more Republican governors and Senators who are racial minorities than there are Democrats – not that facts matter all that much to some folks.)

For the road ahead, it looks like Obama has no plans to work with Republicans; certainly his communications advisor feels that not just the other party but the political system itself is “not worthy” of the great moment presented by Obama’s second term.  My personal view is that this left-leaning agenda is designed to achieve next to nothing – beyond painting Republicans as hopelessly obstructionist.  It’s all a plan to get nothing done for two years and then retake the House in 2014.

No surprise: it’s all about the politics.

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