Roger’s Rules

Humor from Jacob Weisberg

Anyone in need of a therapeutic laugh — and who isn’t these days? — should click on over to Slate and savor Jacob Weisberg’s latest exercise in unintentional comedy. The fact that Weisberg’s column is called “THE BIG IDEA 2009: The thinking behind the news,” is already grounds for a chuckle, since Weisberg has scrupulously excluded ideas of any but microscopic size and all thinking whatever from his writing for as long as anyone can remember. All the left-liberal clichés all the time. That’s his motto, and he’s sticking to it.

Still, with his current column Jacob Weisberg really outdoes himself. The title says it all “Obama’s Brilliant First Year.” Yes, I did a double-take, too. In fact, the only reason I clicked on the story — which I stumbled across on RealClearPolitics — was because of that ostentatiously absurd title. It’s about as truthful as “Dubai’s Brilliant Financial Leadership” or “North Korea’s Brilliant Human Rights Record.” It’s the sort of hyperbole that a humorist like Stephen Potter would have appreciated. (If you’re planning to dazzle the punters with fibs, make ’em big ones he advised in Oneupmanship.) “Surely,” I thought, inspecting Weisberg’s latest, “we’re in for a bit of irony or sarcasm.” Perhaps, I speculated, this was The Onion undertaking a spoof of Slate, of Weisberg? My innocence wavered when I digested the subhead:

“By January, [Obama] will have accomplished more than any first-year president since Franklin Roosevelt.”

Another joke? If, like me, you’ve read The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes’s percipient book about FDR and the Great Depression, you might at first have been inclined to suppose that here was another piece of irony. “. . . more than any first-year president since Franklin Roosevelt”: get it? By the end of his first year in office, Roosevelt had made a dog’s breakfast of the economy, derailing an incipient recovery and putting the country firmly on the road towards the financial disaster that would envelop America over the next several years. [UPDATE: See Ed Driscoll for some informative charts on this subject.]

But, no. Had I been paying attention, I would have known. After all, I had absorbed the byline. Indeed, it was really the conjunction “Obama’s Brilliant First Year” and the name “Jacob Weisberg” — why is that smile producing? — that prompted me to position the cursor over the relevant URL and quickly depress the Kimball digit on the mouse. Maybe some second thoughts were afoot? Maybe Jacob Weisberg, like Paul on the road to Damascus, had undergone a metanoia?

Maybe the moon is made of green cheese.

I ought to have known what I was in for. Having failed in the past to exercise proper precautions, I had occasionally exposed myself to some columns by Jacob Weisberg. Experience had forewarned me. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for the combination of naïveté and smugness. Item:

If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record — how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

Weisberg’s Big Idea was thinking way behind the news in this case. It was posted on November 28, 2009, i.e., yesterday. Yet he says it is “increasingly likely” that Obama will have rammed his obscenely expensive effort to extend bureaucratic control over another huge swathe of the eocnomy — and your life — by January 20, 2010. In fact, it is increasingly less likely that Obamacare will pass by January 20. The Washington Examiner , in a story posted November 27, has the news: “Growing public backlash over Obamacare”. Ony 38 percent of the public now favors the plan, the Examiner reports. The bill squeaked by in the House with the narrowest of margins. The Senate just barely managed agree even to discuss the bill. Grass-roots organizations like ReversetheVote.org are springing up all over the country to rally voters and persuade Congressmen that Obamacare is an express ticket to electoral defeat. Maybe something will pass by January 20. If so, I predict, it will be something that, though it might be called “Obamacare,” will be purged of most of its more toxic elements. If we’re lucky, the whole bill will crash and burn.

It goes without saying that that is not how Jacob Weisberg sees it. According to him, “The case for Obama’s successful freshman year rests above all on the health care legislation now awaiting action in the Senate.” Why? Because so many other Democratic Presidents have tried and failed to saddle the country with socialized medicine. Perhaps the funniest part of Weisberg’s column is this bit of explication:

The bill [Obama] signs may be flawed in any number of ways — weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.

You have to love “weak on cost control” and “inadequate in terms of consumer choice.” In plain English that means: “budget-bustingly expensive” and “completely contrary to what most citizens want from their health care.”

Jacob Weisberg makes the “reform” — i.e., the sclerotic, bureaucratizing revolution — of American health care Obama’s signal achievement in his first year. But in fact, Obamacare, were we ever so unfortunate to as to be its victims, would be a gargantuan disaster. As I have observed before, the Obama-Reid-Pelosi assault on American health care is only incidentally concerned with medical insurance or the delivery of health care. It will make the former more expensive, and the latter vastly less efficient. But its primary purpose is to extend government control over your life — and death. But leave that central objection to one side for a moment. What, supposing it did pass in anything like its current form, would Obamacare mean for you? Dr. David Gratzer provides an insightful recap of the bad news in his new Broadside for Encounter Books, “Why Obama’s Government Takeover of Health Care Will Be a Disaster.” And the Washington Examiner column I mentioned above summarizes some of the more obvious deficiencies:

Obamacare was supposed to lower costs, extend coverage and improve Americans’ health care options. It does none of those things.

Despite accounting gimmicks, Obamacare will cost $4.9 trillion over the next 20 years. This enormous sum will suck the wind out of an already struggling economy. The plan includes higher premiums for younger workers, fines for those who refuse to purchase coverage, lower Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals, and job-killing taxes on employers.

Obamacare will also force an estimated five million workers to lose their employer-provided coverage.

Federal taxpayers will be forced to pay for elective abortions even though only 13 percent favor such coverage.

Jacob Weisberg’s has dug himself into a deep and risible hole with his “Obama’s-Brilliant-First-Year” gambit. And if you find yourself unmoved by the idea — the Big Idea — that Obama’s expensive trashing of the U.S. health care system is something to celebrate, Weisberg has two other likely stories in the same column with which to amuse you. The first concerns Obama;s notorious non-stimulating stimulus package. “Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone,” Weisberg writes. Heaven forfend! “There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February — combined with the bank bailout package — prevented an economic depression. . . . [F]ew mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter.”

“Mounting evidence,” eh? Like what? The 10-point-something unemployment figure? The precipitous decline in the value of the dollar? The continuing skittishness of the credit markets? The multi-trillion dollar deficit? (My favorite new bumper sticker: “It’s a good thing Obama doesn;t know what comes after a trillion.”) The idea that Obama’s spectacular mishandling of the economy is something to be proud of is almost as preposterous as the idea that his effort to extend health insurance to 30 million more people is a cost-cutting measure. As for those “mainstream,” economists, let me point to one who very seriously disputes the value of Obama’s “decisive action”: Stephen Moore, whose hot-off-the-press pamphlet “How Barack Obama is Bankrupting the U.S. Economy” presents chapter and verse on the sad story announced in his title. Moore concludes with some sage advice from Milton Friedman, a prominent architect, as Moore puts it, of America’s quarter-century period of unparalleled prosperity. Asked what he would recommend to encourage economic growth, Friedman offered three suggestions: “One, promote free trade; two, create a competitive model in education; and three, cut government spending.” Is the Obama administration following any part of that advice?

Weisberg isn’t finished yet. Having reminded us of the disaster that is Obamacare as well as the train wreck that is his economic policy, he concludes by offering for admiration what is perhaps the single most alarming element of Obama’s political activity, his foreign policy. According to Weisberg, Obama’s “accomplishment” has been to put “America on a new footing with the rest of the world.”

In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches [?not quite sure what that means], he replaced George W. Bush’s unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world.

In fact, what we’ve seen is the President of the United States circumnavigating the world, bowing to tyrants and taking every opportunity to apologize for America’s supposed sins. Weisberg is certainly right that Obama has “significantly reoriented” our policy toward “Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world.” In a few short months, he has done significant damage to our relations with Israel while over the same period he has made it clear to our enemies that that the United States under his watch will be operating from a position of weakness. “[N]ot since Reagan,” writes Weisberg, “has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America’s global role.” Indeed. But where Reagan was instrumental in bringing about the end of Soviet tyranny and rebuilding American prestige and economic strength after the disaster that was Jimmy Carter, Obama has set about undoing everything that Reagan stood for: a strong America that fostered freedom and prosperity at home and around the world.

I am sorry to have gone on at such length about a column that is not worth the pixels it is printed with. I do so not because Jacob Weisberg is worth mocking but because the anniversary he looks forward to does indeed cry out for a reckoning. Obama’s first year has been one of the most significant of any American President. But it has been “brilliant” only in its extravagant failure. Several months ago in this space, I pondered whether Obama’s bumbling failures in handling the U.S. economy and in his role as America’s first ambassador to the rest of the world were a matter of incompetence or malevolence (or both). It was mostly incompetence, I thought, but I couldn’t rule out a certain quantum of utopian malevolence. January 20, 2010 will certainly present a fitting opportunity for a report card on Barack Obama. Candid observers who have America’s best interests at heart will come to a very different conclusion from that offered by Jacob Weisberg. Less than a week before last year’s election, Obama promised a noisy throng of supporters that they were “only five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” (Check out this YouTube clip: it’s scary.) So far he’s done a remarkable job. The United States was the richest, freest, mightiest nation the world had ever seen. Obama and his lieutenants have made us poorer, much less free, and incalculably weaker. I suppose that takes a kind of malign brilliance. But it isn’t the luster that Jacob Weisberg had in mind and I predict that it won’t pass muster with the voters in 2010 — or in 2012, either.