The Obama Watch

Hi Ho, Hobby-Horse — Barack Obama Rides Again

The Lone Ranger he isn't.

By 4.18.11

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Barack Obama has ridden half a dozen horses in hopes of glory. Never mind that they were all made of wood. It began with "hope and change" -- his most famous steed. In full gallop on this hobby-horse, he secured his presidency.

But there was one moment during the primaries when he faltered -- and Hillary Clinton seemed to be catching up. For a time, he left "hope and change" in the attic and rode out to battle on a hobby-horse of a different color -- declaring himself to be a "post-partisan politician." As he explained it, the crown by all rights should be his because he had had the good sense (or good luck) to grow up after the '60s. Hillary, by contrast, had come of age during the '60s. Said Barack: Hillary "has been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s," and she would have "a very difficult time in trying to bring the country together and to get things done."

Tactically, that was a brilliant stroke in unhorsing his opponent. But was there any truth to what he said?

If you had to choose which of the two candidates (Hillary or Barack) had drunk more deeply from the poisoned well of Nineteen Sixties thinking, with its faux intellectualism and all the cant about rebelling against authority and rejecting bourgeois (i.e. traditional) values, surely it would be Barack. In recounting his college years at Occidental in the late '70s, he boasts of his lefty leanings and his deep sense of "alienation." What could be more quintessentially Sixtyish than this passage in his memoir Dreams from my Father?

To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes on the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.

Needless to say, Mr. Obama abandoned the "post-partisan politician" hobby-horse as soon as it had served its purpose. Upon assuming office, he moved quickly and sharply to the left. His first big piece of business was the passage of the $787 billion stimulus bill, which had the opposite effect of the one intended, as it jump-started the wrong things -- not jobs and economic activity, but huge increases in federal spending and U.S. indebtedness.

The president sold the stimulus bill on the prediction that it would keep the jobless rate below 8 percent. How then to explain why it rose to 8, 9 and then 10 percent in the months that followed? No problem. The president hopped on the "jobs created or saved" hobby-horse -- claiming credit for keeping the unemployment rate from going even higherto "12, 13 or 15" percent.

At first, the administration based the numbers game on a computer model that applied a Keynesian multiplier to government spending (or "investment," in Obama-speak). If the administration had spent enough money to support two jobs, then it figured that it had "created or saved" three jobs. The Cartesian logic here was: It is assumed, therefore it is. But soon the calculation of how many jobs had been "saved" became even more airy-fairy.

In this space in December 2009, I wrote an article entitled "Lies, Damned Lies, and Job Creation," in which I predicted that the president would ultimately claim full credit for stopping the unemployment rate from hitting 25 percent -- just because that was where it was when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression.

Though I said this in jest, Mr. Obama proved me right nine months later. Conjuring up phantom economists to validate phantom jobs, he said in a speech in Racine, Wisconsin: "Now, every economist who has looked at it has said that the Recovery (Act) did its job. It put the brake on the collapse of the economy. We avoided a Great Depression."

By this time -- the fall of 2010 -- the president's own advisers were begging him to get off the "jobs created or saved" hobby-horse. The whole thing had become joke (reminding one of the Groucho Marx quip when caught with his pants down -- "Who are you going to believe -- me or your own eyes?").

So the president got down from that sorry-looking pony and mounted a new one: the "car-in-the-ditch" hobby-horse. In every speech he gave in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November of 2010, he regaled audiences with the same story about how he and his hard-working friends had sweated and strained to pull the automotive equivalent of the ship-of-state out a ditch, while his Republican opponents stood there sipping their Slurpees and doing nothing to help.

The president seemed to get a kick out riding this hobby-horse, and he rode it to death. The overuse of this unfunny and un-charming metaphor surely contributed to the complete "shellacking" that he and Democrats took in the mid-term elections.

If a hobby-horse is taken to mean 1) a child's plaything consisting of an imitation horse mounted on rockers, or 2) a favorite topic or obsessive fixed idea, it is clear that the president has ridden several other hobby-horses as well.

Throughout the long debate over Obamacare, the president returned again and again to a pair of fixed (and false) ideas. One of these is the idea that it would be possible to launch a massive new entitlement -- extending health insurance to 30 million people not currently covered and passing a slew of new mandates -- and "not add a dime to the deficit, not one dime."

The other fixed (and false) idea was the endlessly repeated claim that "If you like your (current) coverage, you can keep it."

If the new health law survives legal challenges and goes into effect, it will cause a huge upheaval in the health insurance business. Already insurance providers such as WellPoint have said that they will be obliged to double or even triple premiums on many policy-holders in order to comply with the new mandates and the rule that they must issue policies to anyone who applies, even if they wait until they are sick to buy insurance. And it may very well be the case that many corporate providers decide to abandon their health insurance plans.

In the spring and summer of last year, as millions of gallons of oil gushed from a hole deep in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama made a great show of pretending that he and his administration were micro-managing the crisis. He suggested that a federal "brain trust" consisting "of some of the smartest folks we have at the National Labs (would) serve as an oversight board with BP engineers and scientists in making calculations about how much mud you pour down, how fast, without risking potentially the whole thing blowing." Emboldened by such lunacy, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed to keep his "boot on BP's neck"; then he threatened to push BP "out of the way" if it did not move faster. Salazar, it may be noted, is a lawyer with a face that bears an uncanny resemblance to a bleating sheep. As the Wall Street Journal put it in an editorial, he "wouldn't know an oil drill from a dental drill." His threat to push BP aside caused Admiral Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant overseeing the federal response, to gasp, "Replace them with what?"

No one could fault Obama for not swimming down and plugging the hole on his own. But why did he feel obliged to put on a show in riding a "I-AM-IN-CHARGE" hobby-horse -- as if he or his administration were commanding legions of geologists, petroleum engineers, and drilling experts? Why, indeed, when his administration reacted slowly and ineffectually in the area in which it could help -- which was in mobilizing resources for the clean-up effort?

On April 13, Mr. Obama gave a big stem-winder of a speech which was supposed to counter Republican Paul Ryan's 2012 budget with his own plan for bringing federal spending and deficits back under control. But that didn't happen. The president trashed Ryan's plan (and his motives as well). But his speech was remarkably free of any serious suggestion for cutting spending or reducing the size and scope of the public sector. Said the president:

We will make the tough cuts necessary to achieve these savings, including programs I care about, but I will not sacrifice the core investments we need to grow and create jobs. We'll invest in medical research and clean energy technology. We'll invest in new roads and airports and broadband access. We will invest in education and job training. We will do what we need to compete and we will win the future.

What did come through in the speech was the president's determination to find a trusty hobby-horse that he could ride in the 2012 election which would be fully as specious and misleading as any of other hobby-horses I have already mentioned. Call this one "the millionaires and billionaires" hobby-horse. Said Obama: 

Worst of all, this is a vision (the Ryan plan) that says even though America can't afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can't afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy.

And again he said:

We cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society.

The sheer mendacity of these statements is breathtaking. Obama deliberately ignores the fact that most of his "millionaire and billionaires" are entirely mythical. The overwhelming majority of the people in the top 2 percent of taxpayers identified by Obama as the "rich" or "wealthy" are nowhere close to being the "millionaires and billionaires" that he so loves to talk about.

According to the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan tax policy think tank in Washington, D.C., fully 70 percent of the top 2 percent of taxpayers earn more than $250,000 but less than $500,000 a year. Only one tenth of taxpayers in the top 2 percent (or 0.2 percent) have adjusted gross incomes exceeding a million dollars a year.

So who are these people? They are doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professional people. They are the hundreds of thousands of people who own and run restaurants, landscaping firms, photographic studios and other businesses. For the most part, they are part and parcel of the same "middle class" that Obama claims to support while making class warfare one of his rallying call for the next election.

There is one other thing that stands out about the top 2 percent of taxpayers: They already account for close to 50 percent of federal income receipts. By contrast, nearly half of U.S. families pay no income taxes at all.

In December, Obama and the Democrats agreed to a two-year extension of the Bush tax regime (put in place ten years ago) knowing that if they raised taxes on the nation's most economically productive citizens -- its entrepreneurs and small business owners -- it would almost certainly turn a weak recovery into a monster recession.

That will be equally true in 2012 -- and in January of 2013, when the next president of the United States is sworn into office.

But tomorrow, as they say, is another daya day that has never been of much concern to our current president, as demonstrated by the complete indifference that he has shown toward the explosive growth in federal spending and indebtedness that has happened during his presidency.

The defining quality of this president seems to be the absence of any serious purpose. He is play-acting at being president; play-acting at being a world leader. It's as if nothing is real and nothing really matters.

So I listen to him talk about "justice" and "fairness" and all those phantom "millionaires and billionaires" who were given "tax cuts," and I think:

Hi ho, Hobby-horse!

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, writes from St. Louis.