"In Kansas," the New Jersey Star-Ledger editorialized this week, "Obama finally found his voice." By theatrically following Teddy Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" footsteps in Osawatomie, Kansas, the president had "finally seize[d] the moment," Michael Tomasky enthused at The Daily Beast. "With this speech, the President finally brings long-sought thematic and programmatic coherence to his many proposals and policy initiatives," Cornell University law professor Robert C. Hockett offered in an "expert available" press release.
The scent of sweet release wafted all over the media. "Obama appears finally to have recognized the fruitlessness of trying to govern in the post-partisan mode on which he campaigned for president," Bloomberg Businessweek columnist Joshua Green wrote. Former Bill Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich spoke for many when he said: "Here, finally, is the Barack Obama many of us thought we had elected in 2008."
This may well be true from the point of view of progressives. But the rest of us—a majority of Americans—are more apt to remember a candidate who won the election on an altogether different selling proposition.
The Teddy Roosevelt speech that Obama was attempting to update for the 21st century contained enough freedom-constricting, bureaucracy-enhancing verbiage to make libertarians shudder, but it did contain one formulation that the president would do well to heed:
[W]ords count for nothing except in so far as they represent acts. This is true everywhere; but, O my friends, it should be truest of all in political life. A broken promise is bad enough in private life. It is worse in the field of politics. No man is worth his salt in public life who makes on the stump a pledge which he does not keep after election; and, if he makes such a pledge and does not keep it, hunt him out of public life.
Arguably the most important economic policy pledge candidate Barack Obama made on the stump, repeatedly, was a vow to enact a "net spending cut" on the federal level. Here he is repeating the pledge, after the financial crisis of September 2008 and the introduction of the first major bank bailout:
Immediately after being sworn into office, President Obama obliterated this pledge, jacking up federal spending by a stunning 18 percent in fiscal 2009, to a then-record $3.5 trillion. As the Congressional Budget Office pointed out, federal spending that miserable year "rose even faster…than revenues fell." The "rate of increase was nearly three times the average growth rate of federal outlays over the previous 10 years."
Candidate Obama campaigned every day—and rightly so—against the "fiscal irresponsibility" of the Bush era. "When George Bush came into office, our debt—national debt was around $5 trillion. It's now over $10 trillion. We've almost doubled it," he complained in his second debate with Republican nominee John McCain. "We have had over the last eight years the biggest increases in deficit spending and national debt in our history."
As president, Obama tacked on another $5 trillion in debt in record time. In every measure of basic budgetary incompetence, the last three years have dwarfed the previous eight, despite the candidate convincing a majority of voters of his superior credentials as a fiscal steward. United States debt zoomed through the 100-percent-of-GDP threshold around Halloween, and as the Baby Boomers get ready to scoop up their old-age entitlements, there isn't even a proposed end to the budget leakage in sight.
And it's not just the size of government, it's the scope. Obama has given historical leeway to regulators on health care and financial reform, and (like presidents before him) is increasing his influence on executive branch enforcement at a time when his sway over the congressional branch continues to wane. All of which begs a question: If we just finished three years of a cautious and centrist Obama, what in the name of government vigor will the next 12-60 months look like?
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine, and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).