Economics

The Symbolic Presidency

Obama says he can get you a job. So why can't he produce a federal budget?

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In late January, President Barack Obama made one of his occasional forays into a simulated social-media free-for-all, taking pre-submitted questions from the common people on Google+. A 29-year-old Texas Republican mother of two asked the president about the wisdom of immigration visas for high-skilled workers, given that her husband, a semiconductor engineer, was unemployed. 

"If you send me your husband's résumé, I'd be interested in finding out exactly what's happening right there," Obama told her. "The word we're getting is somebody in that high-tech field, that kind of engineer, should be able to find something right away. And the H-1B [visa] should be reserved only for those companies who say they cannot find somebody in that particular field." When the Google+ "hangout" was about to end, the president revisited the subject. "I mean what I said," he said. "If you send me your husband's résumé, I'd be interested in finding out what's happening." 

Barack Obama is the boss of more than 4 million employees. Yet this type of micromanaging, even of people he doesn't (yet) employ, has become a staple of his presidency. Every night, famously, the commander in chief reads a folder full of letters from individual Americans. In February 2010, according to a recent article in The New Yorker, Obama read a letter from another disgruntled wife miffed that the president was planning to cut the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ares rocket program, which her husband worked on. This prompted a presidential memo to Obama's staff in which he asked, "Can I get a sense of how Ares fit in with our long term NASA strategy to effectively respond?" Later he instructed his minions to "draft a short letter for Ginger, answering her primary concern—her husband's career—for me to send."

We all appreciate responsive customer service, especially from the people who extract our tax money under threat of imprisonment. But there is something grotesquely disproportionate about a chief executive writing individual job condolences while the Leviathan he allegedly oversees lumbers on, year after year, without so much as an operating budget.

On January 23, the day Barack Obama delivered his third State of the Union address, the federal government racked up its thousandth day since the U.S. Senate last passed a budget. Reflect for a moment that the title of that legislation, when originally submitted by the Obama White House, was A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America's Promise.

Not only did this choice example of public-sector "responsibility" require jacking up federal spending by a stunning 18 percent (a rate of increase "nearly three times the average growth rate of federal outlays over the previous 10 years," according to the Congressional Budget Office); it was also the last time the White House would feign seriousness about managing the federal bureaucracy. Since that budget passed, the federal government, acting mostly on autopilot, has spent more than $10 trillion and added more than $4 trillion to the national debt. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said it would be "foolish" to even attempt a new federal budget.

As with many governmental pathologies, Obama has only accelerated a pre-existing trend. Presidents for three decades now have been substituting anecdotes for governance. Starting with Ronald Reagan in 1982, most State of the Union addresses have name-checked what the White House Press Corps calls "Lenny Skutniks"—individual Americans with stirring, teachable stories. (Reagan praised the original Lenny Skutnik for rescuing a drowning woman.) Obama, while making no reference in his 2012 State of the Union to the 1,000-day anniversary of responsible budgeting, waxed poetic about Jackie Bray, "a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic" but then was heroically retrained by a public-private partnership.

Politicians who can't handle reality don't have much choice but to traffic in symbolism. Luckily for them, they have a press corps that prefers symbolic discourse to the messy and unsatisfying details of applied government policy. The Republican presidential debate season has been a festival of groan-inducing journalistic pleas for candidates to "speak from the heart about how you would navigate this country," to tell Americans "what you would say personally, sitting in your living rooms." Moderators have demonstrated more interest in the would-be presidents' empathy for the common man than for their thoughts about, say, the Euro-zone financial crisis.

We have long since crossed the national threshold of sanity when it comes to what we ask and expect of our presidents, Democrat or Republican, as opposed to what they are actually supposed to do. At a January 26 Republican debate in Jacksonville, Florida, a woman posed this question: "I'm currently unemployed, and I found myself unemployed for the first time in 10 years and unable to afford health care benefits. What type of hope can you promise me and others in my position?" Mitt Romney nearly leaped across the stage. "If I'm president," he promised, "I'll get you back to work."

It should come as no surprise that when we treat our current and potential presidents like personal life coaches, while at the same time failing to hold them accountable for abdicating the most basic of their responsibilities, they lose all sense of proportion about where the government ends and their own superpower begins. Barack Obama's latest State of the Union speech featured a flurry of bizarre, over-personalized boasts about the things Super-POTUS will single-handedly circumvent.

"I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products," he said. "And I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules.…If the playing field is level, I promise you—America will always win."

Not only is Obama America's headhunter and human resources chief; he is its lead investment adviser as well, personally picking winners in the fast-changing field of alternative energy, even after the solar-powered Solyndra boondoggle. "I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy," he vowed. "I will not walk away from workers like Bryan. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here." 

Perhaps fitting for a president whose administration has added 10,000 new federal regulations to American life, Obama saved his most over-the-top braggadocio for a defense of his role as super-regulator: "I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago. I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury poisoning, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean. I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny your coverage, or charge women differently than men. And I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules." 

Instead of an oath to defend the Constitution, maybe the president should just swear to single-handedly protect our kids from mercury poisoning?

America is in desperate need of a new kind of symbolism. On page 20, Senior Editor Brian Doherty reports from the scene of an altogether different conception of the presidency, the one emanating from the remarkable movement that has grown up in the last five years around Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Every day Paul remains in the race is potent publicity for an alternative idea: that we need politicians to do their jobs, not fulfill our fantasies. Or theirs.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch is the co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs).

NEXT: Nothing is Certain but Debt and Taxes

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  1. The handlers tell these politicians it’s important to connect with the voters. Apparently, one at a time.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the man can’t hope to know the wants and needs of 350 million individuals, but that’s not going to stop him from pretending to do so.

    1. All he has to do is convince ~60 million that he knows their wants and needs.

      1. Just like it bought Bush.

        Washington, D.C. is the best middle management the real owners of this country can buy.

        George Carlin
        The real owners of the country
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oBo8CJxatQ

        1. Damn straight.

          Bought your mom too. She was worth both dollars.

        2. Washington, D.C. is the best middle management the real owners of this country can buy.

          I agree with this, but that’s not capitalism.

    2. …so I’ll write an article for my sugar-daddy.

      Covert Operations
      The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.
      by Jane Mayer August 30, 2010
      http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/20…..fact_mayer

      slurp, slurp

  2. I am all for having him connect with the 180M or so registered voters, one at a time. Get cracking Barry! When you figure each phone takes a minute he won’t be done touching for some 340 years. I call that a solved problem.

  3. This sounds like one of those cheesy space operas in which a galactic emperor with trillions of subjects somehow manages to micromanage their lives directly. Unfortunately for Obama, they don’t make very good instruction manuals for government on this planet.

    1. Unfortunately for Obama, they don’t make very good instruction manuals for government on this planet.

      Bullshit, we had a great one. The US Constitution.

      1. The pronoun was a referent to “cheesy space operas,” of which I’m pretty sure the US Constitution isn’t one.

        1. Yay, I failed at reading.

          1. It was sloppy writing. The pronoun was ambiguous.

      2. Back in the good-ol’-days, when a darkie was worth 3/5ths of a person, instead of 3/5th of them being in prison and me paying for their three meals a day and a flop while they watch TV.

        1. Ignore White Idiot.

          1. do 1/5 of them even know their father?

      3. …which anarchists and Southern nationalists reject.

        Just saying.

    2. Well, since Obama doesn’t have quite the level of passion and hate of a Sith he’ll never control the dark side. And since he doesn’t quite have the calm and detachment of a Jedi he’ll never control the light side. What is a poor in-betweener to do?

      1. This is obviously a reference to his mixed-race parentage. Racist!

  4. America is in desperate need of a new kind of symbolism.
    —————————–
    No, we’ve had quite enough symbolism. What America desperately needs is some substance, someone to look its people in the eye and tell them that all the goodies they have voted themselves ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE and they are not how a representative republic is supposed to work.

    All this pandering has created an entirely predictable response – far too many are utterly and hopelessly dependent on govt. For everything. One pol after another has convinced them they not have a “right” to something or other, they have an entitlement to it. We pretend the US cannot wind up like Greece. Bullshit.

    This column should have run in the last election cycle when the Obama chimera was coming into focus. He was full of shit then but no one wanted to say so publicly lest they be branded a racist.

    1. I’m looking your right in the eye, don’t avert them, you damned city-Statist pusscake.

      Premise One: CIVILIZATION IS NOT AND CAN NEVER BE SUSTAINABLE. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

      ~Derrick Jensen
      Endgame
      http://www.endgamethebook.org/…..emises.htm

      1. Speaking of Endgame, they are filming Ender’s Game in New Orleans right now.

        1. Speaking of unsustainable civilizations….

      2. No pizza is sustainable when it comes within my line of sight.

        1. The first ice cream cake was not sustainable for my 300 pound body. MUST. EAT. MOAR.

      3. Not sustainable but virulent. We have tried to destroy our civilization many times. It keeps coming back. It’s like a cockroach.

    2. You’re absolutely right, the trillions of dollars in tax cuts that happened during the last decade are not sustainable, and billionaires need to buck up and take one for the team.

      1. How ’bout all those middle class folks who also got a tax cut? And the workers now enjoying a payroll tax holiday? Let me guess — you want to continue those. Which means this is about yet more class envy, not revenue. Not that revenue could solve our unsusrtainable spending problem, anyway.

        1. This facts and logic thing you do.

          Not cool.

      2. How about we cut spending? Or even freeze spending? Just for once? I know tax increases are your porn, but, seriously, do we really need everything the Fed is doing?

      3. You’re absolutely right, the trillions of dollars in tax cuts that happened during the last decade are not sustainable, and billionaires need to buck up and take one for the team.

        I’ll be happy to go back to 1960 levels of taxation if you’re willing to go back to 1960 levels of spending, inflation-adjusted.

        1. what Tony ignores is that the Bush cuts moved the bulk of the burden TOWARD the higher brackets, not away from it. Yes, rates went down but, for some, the decrease meant no liability at all. But, you can’t put that on a bumper sticker.

          1. What Tony may also ignore – and I can’t see how this isn’t discussed more – is nearly HALF YOUR COUNTRY don’t pay taxes! But taxing an insignificant percentage of your population (the rich) “more” will balance things out?

            I don’t get the math. Pleas’splain.

            1. A statement must fit onto a bumper sticker first before I can agree with it.

              For instance. “Hope & Change” / “Coexist” / “Jimmy McMillan ’12”

      4. billionaires need to buck up and take one for the team

        More likely they’ll just relocate.

      5. This is a spoof, right? Right?

        1. This is a spoof? Right? …Don’t we wish.

  5. What’s the point of this presidency? We’d have done better to have elected a 35-year old G.I. Joe doll. The black one with a beard, so we could still claim to have elected a black president.

    1. But PL! We must DO SOMETHING!

      1. We would’ve with a stop-action, doll president.

    2. The first plastic president?

    3. What would he say if we pulled the string on his back?

      1. I killed Osama! I killed Osama!

        1. I approve of your humorous observation.

      2. The rich must pay their fair share!

        There are those who say…

        Let me be clear…

  6. CAPTION:

    “This is my ‘part-the-waters’ move…”

  7. It’s been over a month. How many interviews has Obama gotten for that unemployed engineer so far?

    1. “If you send me your husband’s r?sum?, I’d be interested in finding out exactly what’s happening right there.”

      “I’d be interested in finding out exactly what’s happening” != “I’ll get him interviews”.

      Continuing to study Obamaese ….

      1. Obama is actually right on that one. There’s something wrong with you if you’re a semiconductor engineer and stay unemployed for a long time. Perhaps the guy is unwilling to relocate. You have to go where the jobs are in engineering.

    2. He probably used pull and got him a job.

      That’s exactly what we want is politician’s to become even more active in using their power to cajole people into giving jobs or money.

  8. A 29-year-old Texas Republican mother of two asked the president about the wisdom of immigration visas for high-skilled workers, given that her husband, a semiconductor engineer, was unemployed.

    “If you send me your husband’s r?sum?, I’d be interested in finding out exactly what’s happening right there,”

    You see symbolism, Obama sees “votes”.

    Now this woman and everyone who knows her is going to vote Obama in 2012… because he was responsive to her concerns. Who cares whether the plan works or not. He responded. Directly. To her.

  9. Matt, I’m concerned for your mental health. This article reads as though you’re a little bit surprised to discover a known politician with his head up his ass. You should take off a few weeks. Grow a beard. Draw flies. Just think about it for a while. If you still feel the same way when you come back, it’s OK by me.

  10. Speaking in general, I blame the “town hall” meme pushed by the MSM.

  11. “I’m currently unemployed, and I found myself unemployed for the first time in 10 years and unable to afford health care benefits. What type of hope can you promise me and others in my position?”

    And make no mistake, the media cull these people very carefully and plant them in these audiences.

    Journalist: “Ooh, this woman’s personal note says she’s unemployed and without healthcare! JACKPOT! Make sure she gets front row center.”

  12. What’s happening is that you’re basing your plans on the fictional world that you’ve created in your mind that bears no resemblance to reality.

    The unemployment problem isn’t as bad as the media makes it out. Many of the people that are “unemployed” simply aren’t looking for jobs, they’re sitting around collecting unemployment checks for as long as the government will keep extending the benefit. But the idea that anybody with training or an education can’t walk out their front door without being recruited for a job is just baloney. There aren’t many people anymore that go into the workforce without a degree or technical training in some field. The idea that a college degree or some other kind of training guarantees that you’ll be getting job offers faster than you can turn them away is antiquated and obsurd.

    1. I can vouch for the above. I have a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and I’ve been chronically underemployed and frequently unemployed, often for very long periods. I’ve been on welfare, food “stamps”, and Medicaid, borrowed on credit cards and a line of credit until those were exhausted, borrowed more from friends, and begged. Right now I’m getting some work that might allow me to pay some people back.

  13. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here.”

    If Obama were actually a personal investment adviser, he’d cede solar and wind to China or Germany in a heartbeat.

  14. One complaint about Welch’s too-reasonable take: Obama is a dorm-room bullshit artist, yes, yes, and a particularly good one. And, yes, the traffic in symbolism has been getting worse. But Obama is also a participant in a shake-down racket, with real guns and real violence and real lives being ruined and resources wasted. I know Welch doesn’t believe in unicorns, but there is a tone to his presentation that evokes the idea that this is some sad case of an otherwise magically-good government drifting in error. But what we are seeing is simply in the nature of protection rackets. And the symbolism of the personal currently in vogue is just an extension of the marble puffery and pseudo-Roman symbolism of earlier times.

  15. And furthermore ….

    It should come as no surprise that when we treat our current and potential presidents like personal life coaches, while at the same time failing to hold them accountable for abdicating the most basic of their responsibilities, they lose all sense of proportion about where the government ends and their own superpower begins.

    What is this collective we who are guilty of pushing into narcissism our leaders who would otherwise have a sense of proportion?

    How about that these suave thugs are illegitimate and so are the criminal organizations that they try to dress up as in the symbolic garb of either the majestic state with warrior-priest president or the therapeutic state with concerned daddy-leader.

  16. Obama was ELECTED on symbolism. Even in a shitty democracy the voters should get what they want sometimes.

    1. don’t bullshit me

      The campaigns are paid for by big money, and the voters get to vote for whom big money has already picked out.

      It’s the Walmartization of politics. You get to go to the store and pick from shit.

      1. …you may write in anyone you want.

        Really, even people who haven’t been “already picked out”.

        It’s the whole point of the write-in option.

        Just be advised, the rest of us will not be voting for your Godesky-face dildo.

        1. …are like the gum you can scrape off the Walmart parking lot.

          You don’t have to settle for what Walmart or the real owners of this country‘s picks.

          Freedom of Choice!

          George Carlin
          The real owners of the country
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oBo8CJxatQ

          1. You don’t have to settle for what Walmart or the real owners of this country’s picks.

            For instance, I stock up on Mountain Dew and Ring-Dings at the nearest Kroger’s, because I’m too lazy to even open up the box of Betty Crocker to make my own cupcakes.

  17. Idiocy oft repeated. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was a budget act that cut spending about $150 billion per year. It is a budget by any real definition.

    On January 23, the day Barack Obama delivered his third State of the Union address, the federal government racked up its thousandth day since the U.S. Senate last passed a budget.

    So that statement is abjectly wrong. Was it a normal budget? Not at all. But this Congress is fucking abnormal.

    1. You have got to be shitting me.

      1. * THIS IS WHAT SHRIKE ACTUALLY BELIEVES*

    2. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was a budget act that cut spending about $150 billion per year. It is a budget by any real definition.

      No, it’s not. A budget is a line-item list of expenditures that is put together on an annual basis and is used as a baseline for total planned spending.

      The Budget Control Act was merely a list of things that spending would not take place on over a 10-year period. It had nothing to do with what will actually be spent in the aggregate on a year-to-year basis.

      1. A budget is a line-item list of expenditures that is put together on an annual basis and is used as a baseline for total planned spending.

        No, a budget can be top-down or “forced” – such as “all spending will be reduced 20% in every department”.

        Look at the spending reductions–

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B…..ct_of_2011

        A budget is merely a planned alteration in spending and/or receipts.

        1. Look at the spending reductions–

          Which are pointless when total spending is actually projected to increase.

          1. Does not matter. A budget merely alters past action.

            In Theory? we don’t need budgets.

            1. In Theory? we don’t need budgets.

              Theory has nothing to do with it. Every government position and program costs money, and as with any bureaucracy, you have to figure out how much each one is going to cost.

              Just because it alters past action doesn’t mean that baseline requirements are never taken into account.

    3. 150 billion per year..How do you say that with a straight face when baseline budgeting means the already near-4T will go UP by far more than 150B?

  18. Forever with this canard that Obama could silence his right-wing critics by releasing a budget, but just stubbornly refuses for some inexplicable reason.

    Among recent presidents at least, Obama plays the game extremely well. That’s why people invested in criticizing him just have to make shit up and pretend that it’s something important.

    1. Tony|3.5.12 @ 1:07PM|#
      “Forever with this canard that Obama could silence his right-wing critics by releasing a budget, but just stubbornly refuses for some inexplicable reason.”

      Hey, surprise! Shithead makes up strawman argument and wins!

    2. Obama’s critics would no doubt continue to critize him if he got a budget passed by the Congress. Last time he bothered to try, it lost in the Senate, 97-0. Leadership, there. In any event, the passing of a budget would by necessity mean that Obama’s critics could not longer criticize him for not passing a budget. Baby steps, Tony.

      1. You’re a fucking idiot. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was signed by the President after Senate approval.

        Welch is parroting wingnut media. He is wrong again.

        1. Hey shriek!
          “Was it a normal budget? Not at all. But this Congress is fucking abnormal.”

          Four legs, dumbshit, four legs.

        2. shrike you’re confused, Obama has no plan, his plan is more debt.

    3. Forever with this canard that Obama could silence his right-wing critics by releasing a budget, but just stubbornly refuses for some inexplicable reason.

      But can he silence his left-wing critics?

  19. Sloppy research, Welch. Seriously.

  20. shrike|3.5.12 @ 12:58PM|#
    …” Was it a normal budget? Not at all. But this Congress is fucking abnormal.”

    Hey, surprise! Dumbshit makes up definition and says he’s right!

    1. Adding creative variety today?

      1. No, Tony is Shithead. Shrike is Dumbshit. Get it stright and stop supporting the frolic lockdown.

      2. What happened to “shithead?”|
        Can we hope?

  21. It’s called constituent services, and I don’t see anything wrong with it. If someone’s got the guts to contact a politician, why shouldn’t they be rewarded with special att’n?

  22. Every night, famously, the commander in chief reads a folder full of letters from individual Americans.

    I just wonder why his PR people think this is a good idea. It’s ridiculous to think he cares about these at all. Secondly, who is dumb enough to be taken in by this stunt?

  23. I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products

    He should try the South Pole. Those penguins are pretty tough customers, though, so he’ll have to be there a while.

  24. Obama is going to spend the rest of his presidency trying to buy votes while he searches for new ways to put his people into every nook and cranny of the bureaucracy and state and local offices if he can. His next term is going to be devoted to packing the courts with left wing radicals.

  25. I take the President-as-life-coach movement to mean that Americans feel overwhelmed by bad times and want a system in place that serves each struggling American individually. Whether this translates into a permanent demand for a personalized nanny state, I don’t know. But one thing I do know: Americans don’t want to pay for the nanny state they already do have, so the ruinous spending will continue regardless. What’s more, the right has utterly failed to convince most Americans that changing their relationship with government in this way will irreversibly put paid to their liberty.

    To pay for the current nanny state, the 50% of income earners who don’t pay federal income tax would have to pay some along with higher payroll taxes, and the feds would have to add a VAT and a net wealth tax.

  26. It is just classic Chicago politics. I get you a job, and maybe get your cousin a job also, and your whole family votes for me. President Obama comes from a political culture where you don’t do what is best for everyone, you help your supporters and they help you.

  27. Math is hard!

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