The Obama Watch

Polonius POTUS

The president who speaks (and speaks and speaks).

By 9.25.09

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Polonius POTUS

The President who speaks (and speaks and speaks).

On the seventh day, God rested. But not Barack. Knowing the great work of mismanaging health care, bankrupting the economy and giving aid and succor to the nation's enemies was not yet done, the president appeared on no fewer than five television programs on Sunday, Sept. 20 -- lecturing the American people on the need for immediate action on thousands of pages of health care legislation that neither he nor anyone else has even read.

This is good for us. We need to know the error of our ways. Barack will do that for us, and then some! No president has ever talked so much, or dished out so much free and unsolicited advice.

Appearing on television before millions of American school children earlier in the month, he served up one platitude after another of stunning banality. "This above all," he said, "to thine own self be true." No, wait, it was Shakespeare's Polonius who said that. But Barack said something strikingly similar. That was just one of dozens of recent speaking engagements for this most front-and-center of presidents.

Like Polonius, who proudly announces in Hamlet that he "played once i'th' university…I did enact Julius Caesar," Mr. Obama is something of a thespian.

Speaking on the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, he played the part of an angry Moses come down from the mountaintop -- warning bankers what would happen if they failed to mend their ways in accordance with his commandments. He told them that he would not intervene a second time to save them from themselves. No, he would let them fall straight to hell. "I want them (i.e. the evil bankers) to hear my words," said he, nodding his head at the gravity of his own words. "Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for the consequences and expect that the next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall."

Sometimes, Barack cannot hide his impatience with those who doubt his omnipotence. One time, rolling up his sleeves at the entrance to the Augean stables, he said, "I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don't mind cleaning up after them but don't do a lot of talking."

Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack's Indonesian-born half sister, relates that "There was this joke in our childhood that he was going to be the first African-American president." It was based, she says, "on the fact that he was so bossy and he was always winning arguments. You know, he was always trying to tell people what to do so we were like, 'Oh, yes, Mr. President!'"

Where does this unwavering certainty and wonderful belief in one's self come from?

It comes from his vision.

In his classic book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulations as a Basis for Social Policy, the economist and social commentator Thomas Sowell described two opposing visions: one tragic, the other triumphant. While the tragic vision is bound by a sense of limitation, the triumphant vision is characterized by total certainty in the ability of the advanced or anointed few to alter the course of human events and make wise and momentous decisions for the good of all.

To someone adhering to the former vision, police, prisons and other parts of the criminal justice system represent necessary if unfortunate trade-offs in protecting individual freedom and property rights. Adam Smith, the most celebrated proponent of limited government, underscored this view of an intrinsically flawed and imperfectable humanity in his comment on the problem of crime in a free society. "Mercy to the guilty," he said, "is cruelty to the innocent."

To others subscribing to the latter vision, however, the preferred approach is to prevent crime from arising in the first place by creating a more perfect society. That is to say, they believe it is within their power to devise a deliberate and artfully constructed plan that will eliminate the root causes of crime. The anointed few aspire to "solutions" of their own creation that offer a clean and miraculous (i.e., essentially costless) break with the past. And this is where candidate Obama -- unbounded by any kind of a reality check -- enjoyed a huge advantage over President Obama.

Most Americans admit to being confused over the issues involved in the health care dispute. In fact, the American people have received a crash course on the economics of health care reform that has made them more aware than ever that there is indeed "no free lunch" -- meaning that there is no way that the government can force insurers and employers to extend coverage to millions of additional people, and be more generous in the coverage they provide (turning a blind eye to pre-existing conditions and meeting all kinds of new federal mandates), while, at the same time, reducing costs, avoiding the need for rationing, and adding not so much as a dime to the federal deficit. 

Still more, the American people can see that this is not the best time to add another vast entitlement program to those we already have with Medicare and Medicaid -- given the vast unfunded liabilities of those two programs. 

Ironically, if predictably, the transition from talking about health care to actually doing something has put the president at loggerheads with some of his closest allies. The so-called Obama/Baucus bill would impose a 35% tax on high-dollar, or "Cadillac," health plans offered by insurers. Who are the biggest holders of these gold-plated plans? As it happens, it is not wealthy individuals, but millions of union workers who have long benefited from a tax code that unfairly exempts their health care benefits from income tax in a way that does not apply to the self-employed and many others who work for small, un-unionized companies. Insurers would have no choice but to pass the cost of higher taxes back to their customers -- large companies which would presumably respond by being that much more resistant to union demands for higher wages. Not surprisingly, union bosses are screaming for amendments that would peel back Mr. Obama's "Cadillac" tax.

Similarly, young people were thrilled by Mr. Obama's rhetoric during the last election. They were moved by his vague and often platitudinous talk about "change" and "hope." Now he proposes to force millions of these same young people to buy expensive health insurance plans -- in effect, cross-subsidizing the plans held by their parents and grandparents -- if anything like the current plan is adopted into law.

The real world -- as opposed to the fairy-tale world that occupies the mind of Shakespeare's incorrigible advice giver -- is one of hard choices and trade-offs, made in the recognition of limitations in human knowledge, wisdom and resources. It is not a world that is easily transformed by mere speechifying.

But there is one piece of advice that the president would be wise to heed. As Polonius said, he should remember that "Brevity is the soul of wit." 

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute in St. Louis.