President Obama is a minimalist. Confronted by a public that has rejected his policies and voted for a Republican landslide in last November’s election, Obama has offered the bare minimum, or less, to accommodate the new public mood.
The American people want spending cuts. In his State of the Union address, Obama proposed to freeze discretionary domestic spending – a fraction of overall spending – for five years to save $400 billion. Compared to the $3 trillion he added the national debt in the past two years and the trillions more projected over the next 8 years, this is a minuscule amount.
The public wants to reduce the deficit. Obama says his health care program will cut the deficit by $250 billion. This is a bogus claim produced by gaming the system the Congressional Budget Office is forced to use in estimating the cost of new programs.
The electorate that voted for a large Republican majority in the House favors smaller government. Obama said he has ordered a “review of government regulations,” a review so chocked with loopholes that federal agencies can with little effort insist that none of their programs is an impediment to economic growth, as the Environmental Protection Agency already has.
Depending on the poll, either a majority or a plurality of Americans wants the president’s health care law to be repealed. His response was to agree to toss out a paperwork obligation that has nothing to do with health care and agreeing, as he has in the past without following through, to listen to Republican ideas for correcting flaws in the law.
Obama’s speech was wrapped the idea of “winning the future,” a fuzzy goal if there ever was one. But how about winning the present? At the moment, the economy is growing but hardly roaring back from a recession that was officially declared over 19 months ago and has failed to bring unemployment below 9 percent for the past 20 months.
And, most of all, Americans want Washington to stop growing in size and reach. Seemingly oblivious to this, Obama proposed new government programs. “We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people,” he said in the address to Congress.
Though Obama didn’t put a price tag on this, it repeats some of the spending in the $814 billion stimulus passed in early 2009. It didn’t work then and isn’t likely to now. But the federal government will get bigger. The president uttered a word that rarely crosses his lips – “incentives.” But he didn’t propose much along that line except a vague scheme for trimming the corporate tax rate (now 35 percent) by an unspecified amount. Meanwhile, he called for raising taxes on oil production and on high earners, exactly the folks able to invest in new businesses and entrepreneurial startups that lead to economic growth and job creation.
The speech was spiked with lofty sentiments that copied Ronald Reagan but fell far short of Reagan’s ability to express them. A third or so of what Obama said was merely high-toned boilerplate – Obamaplate. It’s his specialty and reason why his speeches are often boring.
Obama said America faces “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” Maybe so, but it won’t be dealt with effectively by setting distant goals – “by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources” – for which he cannot be held accountable.
The State of the Union provided the president an opportunity to come to grips with the fiscal and debt crisis that threatens America with a reduced standard of living and a stagnant economy that looks downright European. This was the biggest test he faced in the address. He failed the test.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.