I don’t have a very high estimation of Barack Obama as a president: I think he’s a careerist and a consummate politician, a willing and adept player whether the game is Chicago machine politics or DC-style Obamanomics. He’s liberal to the extent that his political career got off the ground in academia and liberal Chicago, but otherwise I discount the kinds of worries, prevalent on the right, that he’s extremely ideologically leftist or aims at nothing short of reshaping society to fit his socialist ideal.
But every now and then Obama lets something slip that makes me wonder whether I have misjudged him.
His (in)famous off-the-cuff remark to Joe the Plumber was one such moment, when he said “…I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
There were obvious problems with that statement. On the other hand, it was an off-the-cuff remark at one of the thousands of campaign stops he made. Furthermore, if you read the entire transcript of what he said to J the P, the rest of his response to J the P’s question included a lot of subtleties, and overall don’t sound redistributionist.
During last night’s State of the Union, however, Obama made a similarly jarring statement:
“But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, for investment fund managers, and for those making over $250,000 a year. We just can’t afford it.”
This last line that I’ve bolded stood out from the rest of the stock paternalism that ran throughout the speech and runs throughout every speech by a politician.
Implicit in the idea that “we” can’t afford reduced tax rates for high income people is the assumption that their earnings belong to “us.”
It is possible to make an argument that “the rich” need to pay higher top marginal income tax rates because their overall taxes as a percentage of total income are lower. Or you can try to justify “soaking the rich” because of some perceived relationship they have with the government or because they are the only ones who can pony up more funds. But Obama didn’t make any of those claims. He simply said that we — the state or the people — cannot afford to allow the rich all their wages, as if he were a dad telling his kids that they weren’t getting any allowance this week because he had a lot of bills to pay. In context, the actual amounts involved are small in the grand scheme of things. Obama, though, didn’t just excuse a small increase. His words justify all increases of any size.
Clearly this was intended as a rhetorical throwaway line, but consider that the State of the Union is one of the most heavily edited and cautiously prepared speeches the president gives each year. While Obama’s unfortunate response to Joe the Plumber can be excused, this one cannot.
It’s common for policymakers to use language like this thoughtlessly. For example, I’ve always thought it sounded weird for economists to talk about the “cost” of tax cuts in the same way they talk about the cost of a government program. They mean “cost” as shorthand for budget or deficit impact. That shorthand does not translate to rhetoric like Obama’s.
Do other people find this logic of Obama’s troubling? I don’t want to make too much of it: it hasn’t led me to revise me overall view of Obama’s political philosophy. What worries me, though, is that Obama saying “we just can’t afford” to allow the rich more of their own wages suggests that it didn’t even occur to him, Jon Favreau, or any of the other people preparing the speech that it is truly illiberal for the president to talk and act as if all citizen’ income belonged to the state first and to the citizens contingent on the bureaucracy’s needs. (A side note is that that bureacracy happens to be incompetent to manage its own income and finances.)
At the time of the Joe the Plumber incident, before J the P became a semi-official mascot of the misguided right, Anthony Esolen, a professor of English and contributor to various conservative journals, wrote some insightful (and very polemical) reflections on Obama and the left’s attitude toward the encounter:
There was a tense moment in that interview between Joe the Plumber and the [the anchor who first interviewed him after the incident] that people haven’t really talked about, at least not that I’ve heard. It marks the difference between those who believe in natural spheres of authority and therefore in natural limits to any particular office’s authority, and those who do not, and for good reason — since if there are no natural authorities, whoever possesses power may do with it whatever he pleases, so long as he can keep the proles content. When the reporter asked him about Obama’s intention to take money from the supposed rich, Joe, who is not rich, did not at first ask “How much” or “Who’s giving” but “By what authority?”
That one word opens up the little red playbook of the totalitarian left. For the left can be defined as that political movement that seeks to destroy all subsidiary authorities, in the cause of some grand superauthority, like the dicatorship of the proletariat.