In April 2009, President Obama laid out his domestic agenda in a speech at Georgetown University. This was no ordinary chat; Obama envisioned nothing less than a reorientation of the American system.
He sought to shift the economy from the rough and tumble cowboy capitalism of the past to a less risky, pricier, and perhaps slightly more comfortable European future. “We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity,” Obama said.
Less than a year later, this agenda is in shambles. The president’s “new foundation” is just another part of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Its pillars are strewn across the congressional landscape. Democrats are afraid to touch them—and for good reason. They are radioactive.
To read Obama’s Georgetown speech today is to see a president at the height of his power. The ambition was huge. The language was bold. The theme was clear: The financial crisis had repudiated unregulated markets and a small social safety net; hence the need to reform the financial sector and provide for the uninsured and unemployed.
Obama had five goals: reform the banks, spend more on education, create a “green economy” through cap and trade and government subsidy, pass universal health insurance, and shift the focus of discretionary spending from defense to social programs. Strip away the spending initiatives, and you see that none of Obama’s goals has been achieved.
The bank bill awaits action in the Senate. Cap and trade and health care died in the Massachusetts snow. That leaves education, which is a bipartisan issue and an area of domestic policy where Obama is probably doing more good than harm. It’s small fry, moreover, to a president who billed himself as FDR’s heir.
What brought Obama down to earth? Economic stagnation and public opposition.
“We’ve had no choice,” the president told his audience, “but to attack all fronts of our economic crisis at once.” Next came a reference to the $787 billion stimulus bill, the signature economic policy of the Obama administration and the most important mistake of his young presidency.
In selling the plan, the White House said the stimulus would hold unemployment to 8 percent. Unemployment is holding at around 10 percent.
It is remarkable just how out of step the White House became. Health care reform, the bailouts, and cap and trade are not only unpopular, but the public sees them as unimportant.
Last week the Pew Research Center released a list of the public’s priorities. Number one is the economy. Health care is eighth. Financial regulation is fifteenth. Global warming? Dead last at twenty-one.
Which brings us to Obama’s other big mistake. Throughout 2009 the White House cavalierly dismissed its critics.
It picked high-profile fights with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It dismissed all objections to health care reform as lies. It said the public’s “anger” and “frustration” was completely disassociated from the substance of the Obama agenda. It ascribed Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey solely to weak candidates and local issues.
Progressive confidence devolved into progressive hubris—a hubris that blinded Obama to changing political reality. Before he knew it, Massachusetts voted to replace Edward Kennedy with a Republican truck driver from Wrentham whose mother had been on welfare and who campaigned explicitly on opposition to the president’s health care bill.
Obama’s response? In his State of the Union address last week, the president blamed these setbacks on Senate rules, Republican obstruction, and a failure to communicate effectively. In other words, the message was not received.
Obama persists in laying the foundation for a house nobody wants to buy.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin (Sentinel Books).