When An Individual Leader Does Make a Difference
Obama was honest when he said he wanted to remake America.
WSJ Editorial, September 7, 2012
For all the spin and deception of politics, sooner or later every politician reveals his true purposes. For Barack Obama, one of those moments came when he declared shortly before the 2008 election that "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." Above all else, the President who asked voters for a second term Thursday night sees himself as destined to transform America according to his own progressive dreams.
For most of 2008, Mr. Obama was able to disguise this ambition behind his gauzy rhetoric of hope and post-partisanship. The fine print of his agenda betrayed his plans to expand and entrench the entitlement state, but most voters ignored that as they chose his cool confidence over John McCain's manic intensity amid a financial panic.
Candidate Obama was eloquent and likable. His personal story echoed of America's history as a land of opportunity. Voters put aside any worry about his ideology and took a chance on his promise of a better tomorrow.
Four years later the shooting liberal star, as we called him then, has come down to earth. What should have been a buoyant recovery coming out of a deep recession was lackluster to start and has grown weaker. The partisanship he claimed to want to dampen has become more fierce. The middle-class incomes he sought to lift have fallen. These results aren't bad luck or the lingering effects of a crash four years ago. They flow directly from his "transforming" purposes.
To our mind, two events amid hundreds stand out as defining President Obama's first term. The first is his go-for-broke pursuit of progressive social legislation instead of focusing on economic recovery. The second is his refusal to strike a budget deal with Speaker John Boehner in 2011. Both reveal a President more bent on transforming America than addressing the needs of our time.
Mr. Obama was elected first and foremost with a mandate to fix the economy. Yet when he found himself by rare confluence of luck with 60 votes in the Senate, he put nurturing a fragile recovery secondary to the pursuit of pent-up liberal social policies.
Consider the amazing course of ObamaCare. Rather than craft a White House proposal and draw in Republicans from the start, he let Pete Stark and the most liberal House Democrats write the bill. As public opposition built and the tea party rose in 2009, he doubled down with a September speech extolling the virtues of government.
Opposition continued to build. But when Rahm Emanuel and other advisers urged him to compromise on something smaller, he still pressed ahead. Even after Scott Brown's January 2010 victory to replace Ted Kennedy gave the GOP 41 Senators, Mr. Obama endorsed an effort to abuse Congressional procedure to ram the bill through.
The result is a monster that will transform a sixth of the U.S. economy, but at huge cost to growth, political comity and America's long-term fiscal health. Never before has a new entitlement passed on such narrowly partisan lines. The new taxes and burdens on small business in particular have helped to slow job creation. Voters reacted by imposing historic losses on House Democrats.
After that 2010 "shellacking," as Mr. Obama called it, he had another chance to steer a more moderate course. Believing that bipartisan cover offered a unique chance to control the deficit, House Speaker Boehner agreed to back-room talks to pursue a grand budget bargain.
The Republican put tax increases on the table that might have cost him his Speakership, even as Mr. Obama refused to consider any modifications to ObamaCare and would allow only tinkering around the edges of other entitlements. As the deadline neared for raising the national debt limit, Mr. Obama demanded $400 billion more in revenue, and Mr. Boehner had little choice but to walk away.
This episode is all the more remarkable because the deal Mr. Boehner was offering would have divided Republicans, helped Mr. Obama with independents, and probably guaranteed his re-election. Yet the President poisoned the deal for the sake of higher taxes.
So now Mr. Obama is seeking a second term by asking the voters to give him more time to finish the job he started. But what job is that?
The President tried to reprise the spirit of 2008 in his speech Thursday night, but the preoccupation of this week's nominating convention has been to portray Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Republicans as mummies from the crypt.
The second-term agenda he offered Thursday was a diminished and vague version of what he offered in 2008: More government spending disguised as "investment," more subsidies for green energy, more regulation for other parts of the economy. What he didn't mention was his goal of protecting ObamaCare at all costs and passing one of the largest tax increases in history.
In recent interviews, Mr. Obama has said that if he wins he believes a chastened GOP will have no choice but to strike a grand fiscal bargain on his terms. This assumes that the same Republicans he has savaged for 18 months will want to become the tax collectors for his agenda. We support immigration reform, but his executive branch actions have poisoned that prospect too.
The more likely forecast is for more gridlock and rancor. As an unnamed adviser recently told a Journal reporter, Mr. Obama thought he could work with Republicans but "he won't make that mistake again."
Yet by Mr. Obama's transforming lights, his Presidency would still be a success. Re-election guarantees the implementation of ObamaCare, which means he would join FDR and LBJ in the pantheon of progressives who expanded the reach of government to "spread the wealth." Republicans may cavil, but over time they would have no choice but to agree to a value-added tax or some other tap on the middle class to finance a permanently larger, European-sized welfare state.
Were he a man of lesser ideological ambition, President Obama would now be presiding over a stronger economy and probably be cruising to re-election. He gambled instead that he could use the economic crisis as a political lever to achieve his progressive policy goals, and he now finds himself struggling to be re-elected with a campaign based almost entirely on savaging his opponents. Americans who are disappointed with Transformers 1 aren't likely to enjoy the sequel any better.
A version of this article appeared September 7, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Transformers 2.