Roger’s Rules

Mark Twain on Obama: more adventures in the audacity of hype

Like many observers, I have contemplated the spectacle of the burgeoning Obama administration with a mixture of alarm and admiration.

The alarm is easy to explain. I have a horror of socialism. I don’t like it when a politician tells me he wants to “spread the wealth around.” I think individuals should stand up for themselves and take responsibility for their lives. So I look askance when Washington appropriates trillions of dollars for counterproductive social programs that increase dependency and government control. (Remember, by the way, when “trillions” was only a hyperbolic figure of speech? Now it is a real number, printed in red, at the bottom of the nation’s balance sheet.) I raise an eyebrow when the government takes over a failing industry with taxpayer money, defrauds the secured bondholders, and then gives a controlling interest in the propped-up company to a union conspicuous for its political contributions to the Democratic Party.

There are other issues. I object when the President of the United States makes a world-wide Tyrants Tour, bows to a Saudi potentate, yucks it up with Hugo Chavez, and loses no opportunity to apologize to the rest of the world for the behavior of the United States. I think that the United States has been a beneficent force in the world, a beacon of liberty, prosperity, and reassuring political and military strength. I burn with shame when the President of this great country traduces it.

So the alarm is easy for someone of my political orientation to explain. How about the admiration?

All of us admire boldness. We may not, I hasten to add, approve of all that is done in its name, but we admire it. It makes an impression. Not for nothing did Obama title one of his memoirs The Audacity of Hope. He has shown himself to be audacity incarnate: chutzpah on legs. Ponder the opening months of his administration. How rapidly, how boldly, he has moved on so many fronts. The economy. Health care. The environment. Foreign policy. I’ve several times in this space quoted Obama’s — what to call it? his promise? his prognostication? his threat? last October that he was on the brink of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

I believe he was in earnest then, and the actions of his administration since January 20, I submit, corroborate that impression. The most left-wing President in the nation’s history has moved so boldly on so many fronts so quickly that it takes one’s breath away.

I am not sure anyone can keep up, really. But I wonder whether the President’s address yesterday — “Two Pillars of a New Foundation,” he called it — marks a new opening, perhaps even a whole new phase of his campaign to transform the country. Until yesterday, I often had the sense that when the President or someone on his senior staff spoke it was at least partly with an eye to gauging the reaction. There was, I suspect, an unspoken question behind many of those initiatives, an assumption that might be best summed up in the such questions as: “Just how far can we go? What can we get away with? We’ve just appropriated $700 billion in new spending, can we get away with calling it a “stimulus” package? While people are reeling from that, can we also tell them we are going to let the Bush tax cuts expire, that we are going to increase taxes on capital gains, that we haven’t forgotten about our threat — no, best call it a “promise” — to eliminate the ceiling on Social Security taxes?”

On and on it went and I have to take my hat off to Obama: he has demonstrated a consummate mastery in the art of (in Gertrude Stein’s phrase) knowing how far to go in going too far. Sure there have been objections. There have even been protests — lots of them, and I suspect that they will grow in numbers and political potency. But to date his administration has conducted its various raids on our credulity and patience with impressive finesse. What the ultimate effect will be is difficult to say at this point. I like to think that the instinct of self-preservation has not been entirely bred out of the American public. We will see. My point now, however, is to suggest that hitherto Obama has been conducting a series of border-establishing exercises, sorties designed to tell him how far the public was likely to let him go without revolt.

With “Two Pillars of a New Foundation” he has embarked on a campaign to make all that territory his own. Until now, we have been witnessing the preliminary feints and skirmishes. Now the main battle has been joined.

Two battles, in fact. One is called the Environment. The other is called Health Care.

On the environment, Obama tells us that, at last, “utility companies and corporate leaders” are joining hands with environmentalists to endorse a plan “that will finally reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil and cap the carbon pollution that threatens our health and our climate. Most important, it’s a plan that will trigger the creation of millions of new jobs for Americans, who will produce the wind turbines and solar panels and develop the alternative fuels to power the future.”

A full analysis of these couple of sentences would fill a book. What’s left out — nuclear power, exploiting our own energy resources, from oil and natural gas to coal — is almost as worrisome as what’s implicitly proposed: a cap-and-trade plan that will eviscerate the coal industry and potentially cost every family (except those on the new Obama welfare roll) some $3100 per annum. “It’s a plan that will trigger the creation of millions of new jobs for Americans.” How, pray tell? He doesn’t say because it isn’t true. It doesn’t have to be true. As the philosopher Harvey Mansfield observed some years ago, “environmentalism is school prayer for liberals.” Just say something is “environmentally friendly” (it doesn’t have to be so in fact, it just has to look as though it is) and susceptible souls will roll on the ground, wave their arms and legs in the air, and empty their pockets. The great thing about environmentalism, from the point of view of a politician and an environmentalist, is that you can never be green enough. The amount of money you can spend is therefore endless — a permanent boon to the politician — while the opportunities for smug self-righteousness are also endless, an munificent gift to the environmentalist, who regards his position on “the environment” the way a properly brought up lady in Victorian times regarded her virginity.

I doubt whether anyone has been able to put an accurate number on what enacting Obama’s eco-fantasy would cost. It’s still a moving target, “evolving,” as the phrase is, so any figure would have to be provisional, descriptive merely of the downpayment on the metastasizing disaster.

Something similar has to be said about the Obama plan to nationalize health care without saying he is nationalizing health care. America, says Obama, “will not succeed in the 21st century if we continue to be held down by the weight of rapidly rising health care costs and a broken health care system.” He’s reached out to “representatives of insurance and drug companies, doctors and hospitals, and labor unions” and — Good news! — they’re all going to get together “to reduce the annual health care spending growth rate by 1.5 percentage points. Coupled with comprehensive reform, their efforts could help to save our nation more than $2 trillion in the next ten years — and save hardworking families $2,500 each in the coming years.”

Do you believe any of that? First of all, the health care system in the United States, far from being “broken,” is still the best in the world. It is, to be sure, burdened by excessive governmental control and sky-high insurance premiums for doctors. But the answer to too much government interference in the health care system is not more government interference in the health care system.

The Obama initiatives on the environment and health care bring us to the core of his domestic agenda. He talks about job creation, energy independence, and more humane and affordable health care. He has shown us nothing, absolutely nothing, to support those claims. What he has shown us are plans to turn over huge swathes of the U.S. economy to the government. The proposals certainly are bold. One stands back in admiration, indeed, in awe as one does before an avalanche, a hurricane, a tornado. The catastrophe, when it comes, will be swift. We’ll then have plenty of leisure to pick through the wreckage. I’m looking forward to quoting Mark Twain: “it’s not so much all the things he don’t know, as all the things he do know, that ain’t so.”