Barely six months into his presidency, Barack Obama seems to be driving south into that political speed trap known as Carter Country: a sad-sack landscape in which every major initiative meets not just with failure but with scorn from political allies and foes alike. According to a July 13 CBS News poll, the once-unassailable president's approval rating now stands at 57 percent, down 11 points from April. Half of Americans think the recession will last an additional two years or more, 52 percent think Obama is trying to "accomplish too much," and 57 percent think the country is on the "wrong track."
From a lousy cap-and-trade bill awaiting death in the Senate to a health-care reform agenda already weak in the knees to the failure of the stimulus to deliver promised jobs and economic activity, what once looked like a hope-tastic juggernaut is showing all the horsepower of a Chevy Cobalt. "Give it to me!" the president egged on a Michigan audience last week, pledging to "solve problems" and not "gripe" about the economic hand he was dealt.
Despite such bravura, Obama must be furtively reviewing the history of recent Democratic administrations for some kind of road map out of his post-100-days ditch.
So far, he seems to be skipping the chapter on Bill Clinton and his generally free-market economic policies and instead flipping back to the themes and comportment of Jimmy Carter. Like the 39th president, Obama has inherited an awful economy, dizzying budget deficits and a geopolitical situation as promising as Kim Jong Il's health. Like Carter, Obama is smart, moralistic and enamored of alternative energy schemes that were nonstarters back when America's best-known peanut farmer was installing solar panels at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Like Carter, Obama faces as much effective opposition from his own party's left wing as he does from an ardent but diminished GOP.
And perhaps most important, as with Carter, his specific policies are genuinely unpopular. The auto bailout—which, incidentally, is illegal, springing as it has from a fund specifically earmarked for financial institutions—has been reviled from the get-go, with opposition consistently polling north of 60 percent. Majorities have said no to bank bailouts and to cap and trade if it would make electricity significantly more expensive.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than 80 percent are concerned that health-care reform will increase costs or diminish the quality of care. Even as two House committees passed a reform bill last week, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned that the proposal "significantly expands the federal responsibility for health-care costs" and dramatically raises the cost "curve." This sort of voter and expert feedback can't be comforting to the president.
As writers who inveighed against last year's GOP candidate and called George W. Bush's presidency a "disaster," we're equal-opportunity critics. As taxpayers with children and hence some small, almost certainly unrecoverable stake in this country's future (not to mention that of General Motors, Chrysler and AIG), we write with skin in the game and the fear that our current leader will indeed start busting out the 1970s cardigans.
Of course, it's too early to write Obama off. Just a few years ago, Republicans and Democrats alike were puzzling over the "permanent" GOP majority. And less than two years ago, the smart set was buying advance tickets for Rudy vs. Hillary. Yet there's no question that Obama's massively ambitious domestic agenda is at a fork in the road: One route leads to Plains, Ga., and early retirement, the other to Hope, Ark., a second term and the revitalization of the American economy.
The key to understanding Obama's predicament is to realize that while he ran convincingly as a repudiation of Bush, he is in fact doubling down on his predecessor's big-government policies and perpetual crisis-mongering. From the indefinite detention of alleged terrorists to gays in the military to bailing out industries large and small, Obama has been little more than the keeper of the Bush flame. Indeed, it took the two of them to create the disaster that is the 2009 budget, racking up a deficit that has already crossed the historic $1 trillion mark with almost three months left in the fiscal year.
Beyond pushing the "emergency" $787 billion stimulus package (even while acknowledging that the vast majority of funds would be released in 2010 and beyond), Obama signed a $410 billion omnibus spending bill and a $106 billion supplemental spending bill to cover "emergency" expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, improbably, a "cash for clunkers" program). Despite pledges to achieve a "net spending cut" by targeting earmarks and wasteful spending, Obama rubber-stamped more than 9,000 earmarks and asked government agencies to trim a paltry $100 million in spending this year, 0.003 percent of the federal budget.
In the same way that Bush claimed to be cutting government even while increasing real spending by more than 70 percent, Obama seems to believe that saying one thing, while doing another, somehow makes it so. His first budget was titled "A New Era of Fiscal Responsibility," even as his own projections showed a decade's worth of historically high deficits. He vowed no new taxes on 95 percent of Americans, then jacked up cigarette taxes and indicated a willingness to consider new health-care taxes as part of his reform package. He said he didn't want to take over General Motors on the day that he took over General Motors.
Such is the extent of Obama's magical realism that he can promise to post all bills on the Internet five days before signing them, serially break that promise and then, when announcing that he wouldn't even try anymore, have a spokesman present the move as yet another example of "providing the American people more transparency in government."
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. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post on July 19, 2009.