By Rich Lowry
Sometime between 2008 and today, President Barack Obama lost the future.
He rose to high office on a gust of hope and change, but despite the future-oriented marketing has proved himself devoted to old pieties and existing governmental structures. At this rate, he’ll be remembered as the last president of the 20th century.
His economic policy has been a reprise of the best economic thinking circa 1932. It’s been all Keynesian stimulus, and the soggy results are all around us. With the economy still weak and unemployment still high, he’s checkmated by his own stale orthodoxy. He’s unable to advance any significant proposals that wouldn’t simply be more of the same and politically unacceptable in this era of anxiety over the debt.
In his misplaced faith in the “shovel ready” project, he must have had visions of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system — those jewels of 20th-century American infrastructure, built relatively rapidly before the regulatory state had tied itself in knots — rising up from his stimulus. Instead, the stimulus has built little or nothing anyone will remember.
Obama’s health-care program is radical in its sweep, but distinctly mid-20th century in its orientation. An enormous part of it simply depends on the expansion of Medicaid, the pride of 1965. In the first blush of the Great Society, Medicaid might have seemed a glorious innovation. Now, its results are so poor that some studies show that the health outcomes for people on Medicaid aren’t any better than those without any insurance at all.
As the baby boomers retire, the 20th-century entitlement state is under increasing strain. Paul Ryan proposes transforming Medicare to harness the power of the market and rein in the program’s costs over time. Obama proposes a bureaucratic board to dictate its future in command-and-control fashion out of World War II.
It is coming undone under the solvents of demographics (an aging population), fiscal realities (unsustainable levels of debt) and market changes (globalization and new technologies favoring the quick and nimble). It’s not the 1950s anymore.
Yet government lumbers on. How many rounds of restructuring and downsizing has corporate America gone through over the decades? For the private sector, all is flux. For the public sector, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Obama has gone from agent of change to the best friend of government as we know it. He’s gone from capturing the restlessness and discontent of the American public to relying on the sheer power of inertia to resist Republican plans to tackle the debt and update the entitlement state. He’s the great obstacle to adjusting to new realities.
All around Obama the cracks in the edifice are showing. The AARP is signaling openness to Social Security cuts. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the son of liberal lion Mario Cuomo, is pursuing reformist measures unimaginable a few years ago. Yet Obama apparently still needs a weatherman to tell him which way the wind is blowing.
If Bill Clinton built the bridge to the 21st century, Barack Obama is adamantly refusing to cross it, rendered immobile by his ideology and self-interest.
(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)
© 2011 by King Features Synd., Inc.