Mistaken Assumptions

Barack Obama has based his policies as President on two assumptions. One year after his election both assumptions appear to have been mistaken.

His domestic policies have been based on the assumption that economic distress would produce an increased demand for, or at least acceptance of, big government policies. The financial crisis of September 2008 had already led to the Bush Administration's $700 billion TARP legislation, supported by Senator Obama, followed by the $787 billion stimulus package passed in February 2009, and by the government and United Auto Workers takeover of General Motors executed in the spring. Curiously, the Obama Administration provided little in the way of guidelines to Congress on the stimulus package and let Democratic congressional leaders fashion its details.

Obama has followed the same procedure on the health care and cap-and-trade legislation, which Democrats made a priority long before the financial crisis, at a time when Federal budget deficits were far lower and revenues considerably more robust than they have been in 2009. Evidently, no consideration was given to deferring such legislation or making it less ambitious and expensive. The assumption was that in a time of economic distress voters would welcome such initiatives.

Large numbers of ordinary voters made it plain that they regarded the expansion of government as profoundly undesirable.

That has not been the case. The most unexpected political development of the year (unexpected by me, anyway) was the emergence of a spontaneous protest movement that made itself felt in "tea parties" and congressional town hall meetings. Large numbers of ordinary voters made it plain that they regarded the expansion of government--the Congressional Budget Office forecast that spending was on a trajectory to double the national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product over ten years--as profoundly undesirable.

As with the stimulus package the Obama Administration let Democratic congressional leaders fashion cap-and-trade and health care legislation without much in the way of guidance. The President, who often voted "present" in the Illinois Senate, did not even take a strong stand on whether a health care bill must include a "public option" government health insurance program. The House Democratic leadership did push through cap-and-trade legislation in June and a health care bill in November by narrow margins, with 44 and 39 Democratic members opposed. But on the anniversary of Obama's election, the prospects in the Senate for cap-and-trade legislation seem dismal, and those of a health care bill there remain uncertain. Polling showed both to be sharply unpopular, and in elections for Governor in New Jersey and Virginia the losing Democratic candidates ran 12 percent behind Obama's percentages in those states in 2008, while the Republicans ran 3 percent and 5 percent ahead of George W. Bush's percentages there in 2004.

Obama's foreign and defense policies have been based on the assumption that showing respect for and a willingness to engage with the leaders of nations that have been hostile in varying degrees to the United States could produce breakthroughs to agreements and mutually acceptable accommodation. A corollary seems to have been that a willingness to snub or pressure nations that have been America's friends could help produce such outcomes.?

A year after Obama's election that assumption appears to have been unrealistic. Certainly, hoped-for outcomes have not occurred. The most visible failure has been the Administration's inability to persuade the regime in Iran to abandon its program to obtain nuclear weapons. Obama has treated the Iranian mullahs respectfully, perhaps even slavishly; he ostentatiously refrained from condemning the irregular June 12 elections; he has authorized direct negotiations. But the Iranians have shown no sign of appreciating his respect, much less of abandoning their nuclear program.

Similarly, Obama unilaterally abrogated the American commitment to missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic--a long-time demand of Vladimir Putin's Russian government--but received no perceptible concessions in return. His Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced before a trip to China that she would not press the Chinese regime on human rights issues, again without receiving any concessions in return. ?

The Obama Administration pressed our ally Israel to ban even internal expansion of settlements on the West Bank, but that did not produce concessions by Palestinians or the hoped-for negotiations toward a two-state solution, and the U.S. demand has apparently been modified. The Obama Administration declared that the ouster of the President of Honduras, pursuant to a vote by the Congress and a ruling of the Supreme Court in that nation, was a military coup--a position applauded by the authoritarian ruler of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. But the Administration then evidently agreed not to insist on the President's reinstatement and, in a reversal, promised to respect the scheduled November 29 election there.

Obama has stated that he will be "persistent" in seeking accommodations with hostile nations, and perhaps persistence will produce more agreeable results than were apparent a year after his election. But that seems, at least to me, very far from certain.

Missing from the record of this Administration in the year after Obama's election were, in foreign policy, the stress on human rights evident to a varying extent in the policies of Administrations of both parties over the past thirty years and, in domestic policy, the post-partisan approach that Obama proclaimed in the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that brought him to national attention and in his 2008 presidential campaign. The President has repeatedly hailed his own election as a landmark moment in tolerance, notably in the two-minute videotape he prepared for the ceremonies commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, with the exception of a speech on Africa delivered in Ghana, he has expressed little or no sympathy with those seeking basic human rights in countries like Iran or Burma and has seemed hesitant to hail America's role in expanding liberty and democracy in the world. He has made pointed snubs of the leaders of friendly nations like Britain and Israel while speaking respectfully of the Islamic Republic of Iran and exchanging smiles and books with Hugo Chávez.

At home Obama has missed few chances to make disparaging remarks about his predecessor in office, in contrast to every other President since World War II, who conspicuously refrained from such backward-looking barbs. In his campaign he called for civil discourse, but in office he has characterized Republicans in sharply negative terms--a practice few of those predecessors indulged in very much. On major issues he has made, or allowed Democratic congressional leaders to make, choices on policy that made bipartisanship impossible, in contrast to important policy priorities in the first two years of the Administrations of George W. Bush (on education) and Bill Clinton (on the North American Free Trade Agreement).

Barack Obama seems to consider his election as such a momentous event that it would change Americans' attitudes on public policy enough to make his leftish Democratic policies the national consensus, and that it would change foreign tyrants' attitudes on international issues enough to make them amenable to agreement or accommodation with the United States. So far, at least, things have not worked out that way.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza

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