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).