WASHINGTON — In the first month of his presidency, Barack Obama averred that if in three years he hadn't alleviated the nation's economic pain, he'd be a "one-term proposition."
When three-quarters of Americans think the country is on the "wrong track" and even Bill Clinton calls the economy "lousy," how then to run for a second term? Traveling Tuesday to Osawatomie, Kan., site of a famous 1910 Teddy Roosevelt speech, Obama laid out the case.
It seems that he and his policies have nothing to do with the current state of things. Sure, presidents are ordinarily held accountable for economic growth, unemployment, national indebtedness (see Obama, above). But not this time. Responsibility, you see, lies with the rich.
Or, as the philosophers of Zuccotti Park call them, the 1 percent. For Obama, these rich are the ones holding back the 99 percent. The "breathtaking greed of a few" is crushing the middle class. If only the rich paid their "fair share," the middle class would have a chance. Otherwise, government won't have enough funds to "invest" in education and innovation, the golden path to the sunny uplands of economic growth and opportunity.
Where to begin? A country spending twice as much per capita on education as it did in 1970 with zero effect on test scores is not underinvesting in education. It's mis-investing. As for federally directed spending on innovation — like Solyndra? Ethanol? The preposterously subsidized, flammable Chevy Volt?
Our current economic distress is attributable to myriad causes: globalization, expensive high-tech medicine, a huge debt burden, a burst housing bubble largely driven by precisely the egalitarian impulse that Obama is promoting (government aggressively pushing "affordable housing" that turned out to be disastrously unaffordable), an aging population straining the social safety net. Yes, growing inequality is a problem throughout the Western world. But Obama's pretense that it is the root cause of this sick economy is ridiculous.
As is his solution, that old perennial: selective abolition of the Bush tax cuts. As if all that ails us, all that keeps the economy from humming and the middle class from advancing, is a 4.6-point hike in marginal tax rates for the rich.
This, in a country $15 trillion in debt with out-of-control entitlements systematically starving every other national need. This obsession with a sock-it-to-the-rich tax hike that, at most, would have reduced this year's deficit from $1.30 trillion to $1.22 trillion is the classic reflex of reactionary liberalism — anything to avoid addressing the underlying structural problems, which would require modernizing the totemic programs of the New Deal and Great Society.
As for those structural problems, Obama has spent three years on signature policies that either ignore or aggravate them:
— A massive stimulus, a gigantic payoff to Democratic interest groups (such as teachers, public sector unions) that will add nearly $1 trillion to the national debt.
— A sweeping federally run reorganization of health care that (a) cost Congress a year, (b) created an entirely new entitlement in a nation hemorrhaging from unsustainable entitlements, (c) introduced new levels of uncertainty into an already stagnant economy.
— High-handed regulation, best exemplified by Obama's failed cap-and-trade legislation, promptly followed by an EPA trying to impose the same conventional-energy-killing agenda by administrative means.
Moreover, on the one issue that already enjoys a bipartisan consensus — the need for fundamental reform of a corrosive, corrupted tax code that misdirects capital and promotes unfairness — Obama did nothing, ignoring the recommendations of several bipartisan commissions, including his own.
In Kansas, Obama lamented that millions "are now forced to take their children to food banks." You have to admire the audacity. That's the kind of damning observation the opposition brings up when you've been in office three years. Yet Obama summoned it to make the case for his reelection!
Why? Because, you see, he bears no responsibility for the current economic distress. It's the rich. And, like Horatius at the bridge, Obama stands with the American masses against the soulless plutocrats.
This is populism so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez. But with high unemployment, economic stagnation and unprecedented deficits, what else can Obama say?
He can't run on stewardship. He can't run on policy. His signature initiatives — the stimulus, Obamacare and the failed cap-and-trade — will go unmentioned in his campaign ads. Indeed, they will be the stuff of Republican ads.
What's left? Class resentment. Got a better idea?
Charles Krauthammer's email address is email@example.com.
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