Political Hay

What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

Contemplating life under a President Obama.

By 7.11.08

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Growing up with a father who is an irritable traveler notoriously obsessed with avoiding traffic, I developed a habit of always preparing myself for the worst whenever embarking on a journey.

If I'm waiting for my airplane to take off from a busy airport, I'll brace for a two-hour delay on the tarmac. If I'm hopping on a 5 p.m. bus from Washington, D.C. to New York, I'll tell my friends to expect me by midnight, though it's only a four-hour ride without traffic.

Preparing for the worst case scenario, I find, makes it a lot easier to deal with adverse outcomes, and often makes me pleasantly surprised when things don't go as bad as feared.

This personality quirk has become such a part of my nature, that in recent weeks I have found myself contemplating the prospect of an Obama administration, and wondering: What's the worst that could happen?

AMERICA HAS ENDURED liberal presidents before. Jimmy Carter's single term in office was an unmitigated disaster, but it brought us eight years of Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton's early stumbles ignited the Gingrich Revolution. Though Clinton's presidency contained personal political triumphs, he never advanced the liberal agenda in any permanent way, and welfare reform is one of his few domestic accomplishments.

On the other hand, there is Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal created the welfare state as we know it, and more significantly, changed the psychology of Americans so that they would look to government to solve their problems ever after, a legacy that Lyndon Johnson built on with his Great Society programs.

If he's elected president, there are certain items on the liberal wish list that we can expect Barack Obama to fulfill, especially given the likely expanded majorities he will enjoy in Congress.

The Bush tax cuts will be allowed to expire, resulting in the largest tax increase in the nation's history. Democratic legislation that cleared the House in the Bush years only to be blocked by a Senate filibuster or Bush veto, will get passed and quickly signed into law by Obama. Chief among these will be an expansion of the government-run children's health care program S-CHIP and "card-check" legislation, which will deny workers access to a secret ballot when voting on unionization, thus allowing big labor to expand its membership through intimidation. Obama also can be expected to appoint liberal judges to any court vacancies that arise during his administration.

All of these developments would be bad, but none of them would do permanent, irreversible, harm in the same way that the New Deal and the Great Society did. Reagan and the current President Bush brought tax rates back down, and each curbed abusive practices by big labor. Should Republicans return to power with a conservative message at some point in the future, they would be able to undue much of Obama's legacy if it is limited to the items mentioned above.

Even on judges, while the importance of the issue cannot be overstated, it's worth noting that the oldest Supreme Court justice is the 88-year-old John Paul Stevens. Replacing him with a younger liberal judge would be a setback for conservatives and a missed opportunity, but it won't change the current ideological makeup of the Court. And Republican presidents, despite notorious mistakes, have offset liberal gains in the judiciary with the appointments of Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, as well as hundreds of lower court judges.

But even the mighty Reagan couldn't make a dent in the mammoth government programs of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, and in President Bush's case, he only made the problem worse by creating an additional entitlement for prescription drugs.

THAT IS WHY, on the domestic front, the worst possible thing that could happen for conservatives during an Obama administration, would be for him to create a government-run health-care system. While Obama has supported a single-payer, or socialized system, in the past, in his current campaign he has adopted a more incremental approach.

His plan would create a new government-run, Medicare-like option, while imposing onerous regulations on insurers requiring them to cover everybody who applies for insurance, regardless of risk factors or preexisting conditions, at rates the government deems affordable. While it is technically true that as currently conceived it is not socialized medicine, Obama's plan would inevitably lead to a socialized system by expanding the role of government in health care while simultaneously destroying the private market.

Both in terms of the sheer cost, as well as the psychological impact of putting the state in control of our life and death decisions, this would represent the final defeat for advocates of limited government, because if history is a guide, such reforms will never be undone.

National security is even a bigger wild card. Obama has based much of his campaign on reversing the Bush administration's policies, but those same policies have coincided with a nearly seven-year period devoid of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The most damaging thing Obama could do would be to return America to a time when terrorism was seen as a manageable threat that can be handled by law enforcement, rather than a war of global scope that must be countered with aggressive, proactive action.

Withdrawing from Iraq prematurely based on arbitrary timetables could reverse the undeniable gains made by the "surge" strategy. And should Obama keep true to his promise of engaging in face-to-face talks with the Iranian leadership, and unwittingly allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, that would be a permanent and irreversible development. Even if Iran doesn't launch a nuclear attack or provide materials to its favored terrorist groups, the leverage gained by the regime, as well as the arms race it could set off in the Middle East, are consequences that any future American president would have to deal with, whether or not Obama is a one-termer.

But in a larger sense, the idea of having a neophyte such as Obama in charge of the country has disastrous potential should any international crises emerge that aren't known to us now, as Carter's handling of the Iranian Hostage situation tragically demonstrated.

AT THIS POINT, it's difficult to asses both what Obama would be able to accomplish were he elected president, and how much he would be willing to sacrifice his liberal principles for personal political gain.

In a 2003 questionnaire Obama filled out as a Senate candidate seeking the support of a liberal group in Illinois, Obama promised, "In the US Senate, I will be a champion for the progressive agenda..." He kept true to that promise, and racked up the most liberal voting record of any U.S. Senator, according to National Journal rankings.

During the Democratic primary, he took some heat from the left for admiring words he had for Reagan, but his actual point was that he hoped to be the type of president who advanced an agenda. "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he said.

The two Democratic presidents who did the most to advance the liberal domestic agenda -- FDR and LBJ -- had a lot going for them that Obama did not.

Although Democrats are expected to increase their majorities in Congress this November, Obama won't enjoy the type of supermajorities that Roosevelt and Johnson had to work with. Furthermore, his Democratic predecessors both had far more experience. Roosevelt was a seasoned politician who had served as governor of New York, which at the time was still the largest state in the nation; and Johnson had been a powerful Senate Majority Leader, capable of cajoling lawmakers to vote his way better than perhaps any politician in American history.

Obama, by contrast, was just two years into his first Senate term when he announced he would run for president. To date, he has been the lead sponsor of 123 bills, but just two of them actually passed: one "to promote relief, security, and democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo" and "a resolution designating July 13, 2006, as 'National Summer Learning Day.'"

ANOTHER GOOD SIGN is that in the early stages of the general election, Obama has reversed his progressive stances on public financing, trade, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and gun control, among others. He has added nuance to his bold vow to meet unconditionally with the leaders of Iran and other rogue regimes, and has even said he may "refine" his proposal to set a firm 16-month timetable to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, even though that pledge has been the cornerstone of his candidacy.

Nobody knows how Obama would actually behave were he elected, since he has such a thin public record on which to evaluate him, but the positive news for conservatives is that Obama is looking more Clintonian by the day. In other words, he is coming across as a leader who will ultimately abandon his liberal policy goals if they are an obstacle to his political ambitions.

Despite all of the problems faced by the current incarnation of the Republican Party, America is still a right of center nation, which explains Obama's need to abandon many of his liberal positions. Although it's something I would rather not find out, what this means is that Obama's ability to govern as a liberal if elected president would largely be a function of how well conservatives can mobilize opposition to him, thus exploiting his inexperience and inclination to do the politically expedient thing. This won't prevent all bad things from happening under an Obama presidency, but it may spare the nation from the worst-case scenario.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein