Obama's Vision Deficit

After 100 days, the new president has revealed himself as an effective salesman of exhausted ideas.


So here we are, 100 days into the great eight-year triumph of Hope over Change, a new Era of Really Good Feelings in which only one thing has become increasingly, even irrefutably, clear: President Barack Obama is about as visionary as the guy who invented Dippin' Dots, Ice Cream of the Future. Far from sketching out a truly forward-looking set of policies for the 21st century, as his supporters had hoped, Obama is instead serving up cryogenically tasteless and headache-inducing morsels from years gone by.

On issue after issue, Obama has made it clear that instead of blasting past "the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long," (as he promised in his inaugural address), he's moving full speed ahead toward policy prescriptions that already had less fizz than a case of Billy Beer back when Jimmy Carter was urging us all to wear sweaters and turn down our thermostats. Instead of thinking outside the box, Obama is nailing it shut from the inside.

Consider the president's recent "major" speech about transportation, yet another Castro-like exhortation in which Obama boldly rejected the failed policies of the past in favor of the failed policies of the future.

"Our highways are clogged with traffic," he noted, before unveiling his big fix: Shiny new trains that go almost twice as fast as cars. Forget that, as urban historian Joel Garreau has long documented, our country has been decentralizing its living and working patterns for decades now, migrating from virtually all urban centers (except maybe for booming Washington, D.C.) to relatively low-density suburbs. In a big, spread-out country where individualized service at the coffee stand, on cable TV, and in your computer is the new normal, our chief visionary officer is talking about a one-size-fits-all solution that will surely bomb even bigger than NBC's Supertrain.

"Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America," said the president, while ignoring more obvious and forward-looking fixes such as modernizing air traffic control systems, deregulating airports, and unleashing private capital to build and improve roads. Instead of any genuinely interesting or remotely promising initiative, Obama offered a measly $13 billion in funds, to be directed by Vice President Joe Biden—another visitor from the future who prefers the oh-so-modern conveyance of Amtrak to the unreliable horseless carriage.

In nearly every key area of policy concern, from industrial bailouts to massive deficits, from Afghanistan to the Middle East, from education to energy, the president's standard operating or reach back into the Carter playbook for ideas that didn't work back then, either. All while rhetorically valuing "good ideas ahead of old ideological battles."

On the economy, and specifically on the economic crisis, Obama came to office promising a sharp break from the past. Instead, he has added so much fuel to the fires that George W. Bush ignited—exploding already swollen deficits, using TARP monies (which were statutorily provided for banks) not just for auto companies but minor auto parts manufacturers, and giving the federal government more power to seize private companies than even Henry Paulson dreamed of wielding. Such has been the extent of Obama's me-tooism that he's taken to defending his record by pointing out that, hey, Bush started it!

The latter was actually a rare moment of transparency; Obama's typical M.O. is to proclaim a new era of responsibility while ushering in a new era of irresponsible debt, promise to close the revolving door of lobbyists and government while keeping it open, and vow to post all bills online for five days without doing anything of the sort. He says the bailout is "not about helping banks—it's about helping people," then gives more of the people's money to banks. He says he doesn't want to run General Motors, then fires its CEO, guarantees its warranties, and wags his finger about the company's surplus of brands. He says he's taking a battle-axe to the budget, then offers to shave $100 million off a $3.4 trillion tab. At his gee-whiz, interactive, online town hall meeting, he laughed off the most popular question asked by web viewers—should marijuana be legalized—with a lame joke before embracing the status quo like Jimmy Carter hugging a Third World dictator.

On traditional domestic programs, too, Obama came to office with vague yet high-minded promises to rise above, for example, "the same tired debates over education that have crippled our progress and left schools and parents to fend for themselves." When it came to improving rotten schools, Candidate Obama vowed we would no longer be paralyzed by "Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo; more money versus more reform."

Since then, Democrats (versus Republicans) have killed Washington, D.C.'s proven-effective voucher program (versus the status quo), and showered more federal money on schools and teachers (versus more reform). All while having the gall to maintain, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, that they aim to "close the achievement gap by pursuing what works best for kids, regardless of ideology."

For those Americans who voted for Obama, a question: Is this the change you had in mind?

If surveys are to believed, it is. So far, Obama has positively Reaganesque approval ratings and most polls show increases in the percentage of Americans who believe the country is headed in the right direction, even if no one is certain of the economy.

Obama has had the great good fortune to follow one of the least popular and least effective presidents in U.S. history. However, in the next 100 days, Obama will be trying to ram through the biggest alternative energy central planning scheme since Jimmy Carter unleashed the then-ballyhooed, since-forgotten boondoggle of "synfuels" onto the body politic. He will be hauling out a centralized health care scheme the likes of which haven't been discussed since the disastrous early days of Bill Clinton's presidency. He will be plumping for (Ted) Kennedyesque national service and Dubyaesque education spending.

In each of these, he will not much resemble that bold campaign visionary supposeldy with two feet firmly in the future. Rather, he will reveal himself to be that least inspiring of all political characters: a leader beholden first and foremost to special interests and ultra-conventional voting blocs. This at a time when the electorate is becoming increasingly unaffiliated with either the Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals.

According to the Harris Poll, which has been tracking party affiliation and political philosophy of adult Americans for 40 years, between 2007 and 2008, the most recent year for which there is data, independents were the only bloc of voters to expand—from 23 percent to 31 percent. Similarly, political moderates outnumber both liberals and conservatives. All of which suggests that Obama's honeymoon, like all vacations from reality, will soon come to an end.

Matt Welch is the editor in chief of Reason magazine and Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com.