Another Perspective

The Era of Big Government Isn’t Over

President Bush paid lip service to small government and free market economics in his State of the Union Address. But his heart wasn't in it.

By 2.1.06

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Perhaps I'm just weary of President Bush's SOTU addresses, this having been the sixth one I've watched. Or perhaps I'm just more critical of Bush the longer he is in office. Either way, this speech seemed to be one of the most disappointing.

There were some high notes. His defense of the Iraqi War was strong, and his health care proposals, though modest, would move America toward a more market-oriented system. Furthermore, his call to "confront the larger challenge of mandatory spending, or entitlements" in the wake of his failed attempt to reform Social Security was bold.

But that is where the boldness ended. To address the problem of entitlements, he called for the creation of "a commission to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid." He also called for an American Competitiveness Initiative, a Helping America's Youth Initiative, and an Advanced Energy Initiative. How many commissions and initiatives have various presidents called for over the years, and how often does anything come of them? The question is rhetorical.

He also made one remark that must have induced a lot of head shaking among fiscal conservatives: "Every year of my presidency, we've reduced the growth of non-security discretionary spending." Oh, to see the accounting that supports such a contention!

Then there were the various contradictions that seemed to come one after the other. He called for reforms that will "save the American taxpayer another $14 billion next year" and "cut the deficit in half by 2009." He also praised Congress for "working on earmark reform." Yet, a few minutes later he called for "a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research...at the Department of Energy." This was followed by proposals to "to double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years," and "train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and give early help to students who struggle with math." It is unlikely that Congress will be willing to give up its earmarks when the President has his own new spending plans.

In another contradiction, he praised the American people for building a strong economy. He stated, "Even in the face of higher energy prices and natural disasters, the American people have turned in an economic performance that is the envy of the world." He dismissed the notion "that the government needs to take a larger role in directing the economy, centralizing more power in Washington and increasing taxes." Except on the issue of energy. In that area the American people can't be trusted because "America is addicted to oil." Thus, the government must do more via the aforementioned Advanced Energy Initiative. This includes investing "more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy." It also means more funding for research into hydrogen and ethanol so we can "change how we power our automobiles."

This might as well be dubbed the Advanced Exercise In Futility. Although wind and solar have received a plethora of tax credits and subsidies over the last two decades, they still generate less than two percent of the nation's electricity. Despite similar treatment for ethanol, it is still barely competitive with gasoline, and that's only because the price of gas has risen in the last year. Nor will the production of more ethanol or the advent of viable hydrogen technology do much to "make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past." Even if alternative fuels were cheaper than oil, they would first replace the oil that is the most expensive to produce. The most expensive oil tends to be produced in the United States.

It is tempting to blame this on "neoconservatism." Undoubtedly, that has something to do with it. An administration comfortable using big government to achieve conservative ends won't have many qualms about using it to reform the energy sector of our economy and spending more money to do so.

However, much of the problem can be traced all the way back to the conservative base. When Bush first ran for President in 2000, few pressured him to rein in spending or pursue free-market energy policies. And who could blame them? Conservatives had watched the GOP get shellacked by Clinton on spending, and gas prices were low. By 2004 the administration's problems on these issues had become evident, but conservatives set them aside due to the War on Terrorism. Bush was (and still is) the best suited to lead us in that struggle.

At this point, one can only hope the Bush administration will improve in these areas in the next three years. Looking ahead to 2008, if we are really serious about addressing problems such as spending and energy, conservatives must demand from every GOP candidate for president plans to reduce government and deregulate energy markets (and demanding the same from Democratic candidates wouldn't be a bad idea either). Only by making these issues big ones in the presidential primaries can conservatives ensure that future leaders take action. We missed our chance with Bush.

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About the Author

David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.