The Honeymoon Is Over

Here is President Obama on the stimulus package:

The American people did not choose more of the same. They did not send us to Washington to get stuck in partisan posturing, or to turn back to the same tried and failed approaches that were rejected in the last election. They sent us here with a mandate for change, and the expectation that we would act.

l agree that mere partisan posturing is undesirable. But unless I missed something, the Bush Administration never addressed an economic crisis like the one we now face, so it obviously never tried an approach that failed as a remedy.

Nor did President Obama campaign on anything resembling the stimulus bill. Indeed he specifically campaigned for pay as you go, and against earmarks. Circumstances change, and it is fair that he changes his priorities to match them, but it makes no sense for him to claim an electoral mandate for this bill, even if it deserves to pass. Any illogical rhetoric to the contrary can only be posturing (or else a frightening disconnectedness from reality).

One reason President Obama campaigned against earmarks is their cost. Given that a stimulus bill consists of throwing all sorts of money at the economy, that particular objection to pork is fairly dismissed. But earmarks are also problematic because they’re a quintessential example of political gamesmanship trumping sound public policy: these items are so often stuck into important legislation as a hostage maneuver, in which the bill dies unless everyone agrees to stomach a project that isn’t justified, and wouldn’t be approved by the people’s representatives on its own merit.

Obviously this kind of hostage maneuver is particularly repugnant during a national emergency, as Democrats ought to well understand, having seethed as George W. Bush exploited 9/11 to advance his own tangentially related policy ends. Is it any wonder that Democrats using the stimulus bill for analogous ends is costing them support among some Americans?

Another Obama quote:

When you start hearing arguments, all the cable chatter, just understand a couple of things. Number one: They say, ‘Well why are we spending $800 billion. We’ve got this huge deficit.’ First of all, I found this deficit when I showed up. I found this national debt, doubled, wrapped in a big bow waiting for me as I stepped into the Oval Office.

Think about that argument for a moment. It makes no sense. Obama and I agree that George W. Bush behaved deeply irresponsibly on fiscal matters. Is that relevant to the question of whether we can afford an expensive stimulus bill given the hole we’re already in? (And I say that as someone who thinks that some stimulus bill should pass!) Are we next going to hear that we’re invading Pakistan, never mind that our army is already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, because it was George W. Bush who bears responsibility for stretching us too thin? That would make as much logical sense. I wish we were in a situation where Obama got to begin with a blank slate, but guess what, he doesn’t. I hope that he is merely bloviating, because the alternative is that he actually thinks that President Bush’s mistakes are relevant defenses of his own policies, as if everyone who occupies the Oval Office is due his policy preferences regardless of the state of the nation, as a reward for being elected.

Asked about President Obama’s tenure after a week, I’d have said that I approve. Evaluating his performance on the financial crisis, my verdict is the opposite. As his approval ratings decline, perhaps some will find my reasoning of interest.

Beyond what I’ve said, I’ll quote President Obama once more, again arguing in favor of the stimulus bill:

There’s the argument that this is full of pet projects. Well when is the last time we saw a bill of this magnitude go out without one earmark in it.

Never. We’ve never seen a bill of this magnitude stripped of earmarks. Indeed, one might call this bloated bill “business as usual” — “the same tried and failed approaches we rejected in the last election.” But that fact hasn’t led, in the case of earmarking Democrats, to presidential denunciations, in which he calls out the most dastardly Congressmen by name for thwarting the will of the American people.

Let me be clear here. I haven’t followed the stimulus bill closely enough to know whether President Obama, or Congressional Republicans, or Congressional Democrats are the worst behaved. This post isn’t meant to absolve any elected official from criticism, or even excoriation, or to parcel out blame in proportion to where it is owed.

What I mean to say is that while I’d gladly lend my support to a president uncompromising in his determination to change Washington DC in consensus building ways (do all the stuff everyone agrees about first, save the rest for later), pursuing a narrow agenda focused on competence and prioritization of what a large plurality of Americans desire, I refuse to be browbeaten by a president who insists that “change” means accepting whatever parts of the broken system that he deems expedient, because to complain is to thwart the will of the people.

I’ve hoped that President Obama might be a ruthlessly empirical, competence first, zero ideology president, though I can’t say I expected it to play out that way. But he ran as Mr. Change, and much of his mandate is contingent on being different in a way that no president ever has been. The fact that he voluntarily relinquished executive power in his first week was an example of living up to his promise, but his performance on the stimulus suggests to me that he overpromised during his campaign and is underdelivering now, as I expected and feared.

It is no knock against Obama that he is unable to singlehandedly change Washington DC, but it is a bit rich for him to claim that if only conservatives would accept a bill flawed in the same old ways, he’d be succeeding.