In his Inaugural address, Barack Obama summoned Americans to a “new era of responsibility” and challenged us to end the politics of “standing pat … and putting off unpleasant decisions.” It could have happened. If there was ever a President sitting on a high enough mountain of political capital to lead the country through a series of very painful but necessary political decisions, it is Obama. But sadly, that new era has so far been a promise unfulfilled. The Obama Administration’s strategy has been no more than an effective execution of politics as usual, wrapped in more, not less, of the intellectually dishonest language that he so effectively campaigned against.
The sacred cows that voted Democratic last November are mooing more happily than ever. Big Labor is making no sacrifices. Nuclear power plants spew no CO2 into the air and consume no foreign oil, yet a serious effort to build new ones is missing from the Obama energy plan because it offends the environmental left. Health-care reform will be massively expensive, yet the trial lawyers’ lobby is not being asked to endure the cost savings that tort reform would bring to health insurance. The teachers’ unions are unscathed as billions in new spending is poured into public education. Costly — and popular — farm subsidies are untouched (except for those painlessly targeted at “rich” farmers).
Obama’s defenders will point to the concessions the Administration forced Detroit’s autoworkers to make in the arranged-bankruptcy negotiations with Chrysler. It is true that the United Auto Workers (UAW) got less than it asked for. But without Obama’s billions in auto subsidies, it would have gotten far less from insolvency. The children of nonunionized American autoworkers in Kentucky and Alabama who build cars that succeed in the marketplace made the largest concessions. They will endure a larger national debt so that billions of federal dollars can be used to prop up the UAW jobs of far less successful autoworkers in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.
Instead of meddling in the management of domestic auto companies, Obama should use his immense political capital to make a policy decision that no recent President has shown the guts to make but that would be greatly in the national interest. A stiff new gas tax, phased in as the economy strengthens, would push new-car demand toward more fuel-efficient vehicles just as the U.S. market for cars improves and auto production ramps back up. That would both stimulate the market for new cars and help curb our self-defeating addiction to buying oceans of oil from countries that wish us ill. It would be unpopular, of course, but many responsible things are. Revenues from such a gas tax might also help Obama stop being so, well, irresponsible about how to pay for his “new era of responsibility.”
As presented, the Obama budget formula is a work of art, if the goal is to slyly practice the very sort of dissembling politics that Obama ran against. The middle class is promised both a trillion-dollar avalanche of appealing new spending and, in the President’s words, a “tax cut — for 95% of working families.” Call it the audacity of sophistry. If, as the President claims, his election was a mandate for a larger public sector, then would not the honest and responsible move be to ask everybody to pay at least a little bit more? Is a taxpayer making $95,000 a year such a delicate Fabergé egg that he or she cannot chip in an extra $750 a year to help pay for this huge new public sector and all the benefits it promises?
The real bankrollers of Obama’s budget plans come directly from the old political playbook: First, future generations of Americans, who will face our tripled national debt. Second, those reliable villains favored by every Democratic speechwriter, “the top 2%,” namely Americans with incomes of $250,000 or more, who already pay nearly half of all federal income taxes. Not to mention our Chinese creditors, who hold huge piles of likely-to-be-inflated and therefore less valuable U.S. dollars.
As for practical politics, I must say Obama’s approach is a bag of political tricks perfectly designed to capture Democratic success at the ballot box in 2012. But it has nothing to do with the best parts of his presidential campaign. It seems the first of those postponed “unpleasant decisions” Obama cited in his Inaugural speech is the one to make the political sacrifices his promises demand.
Murphy is a GOP political consultant and writer. He Twitters at murphymike