I thought the centerpiece of today’s speech would be amnesty, just because it’s the only liberal wishlist item on which he’s likely to achieve big things in his second term. Push immigration front and center today and then he could point back to it later for “legacy” enhancement, as proof that he kept his key inaugural promise. Instead, this. I guess it makes sense: Today was a day to make liberals feel good and one way to do that reliably is to talk about the fierce of urgency of
now soon-ish on climate change. Per the NYT, soon-ish in this case means ignoring the democratic process in Congress and taking executive action, with new EPA regulations to cap emissions by coal-burning plants — and many, many lawsuits — to follow. In fairness to O, that’s smart from a legacy perspective too. There’s nothing committed partisans like more than to see a president on their side strong-arm their agenda into law, whether through or around the legislature, especially on an issue they consider of paramount, nation-threatening importance. This’ll earn him Great Man of History points with the liberal historians who’ll write his hagiographies in the future.
For the less liberal historians, the picture’s likely to look … more nuanced:
[W]hen Obama first took the oath of office, the nation’s total outstanding debt was $10.6 trillion. When he was sworn in Monday, it stood at $16.4 trillion – and the Congressional Budget Office sees additional deficits ranging from $6.9 trillion to $9.2 trillion over the next decade, depending on the baseline used. Obama didn’t come close to meeting his pledge to cut annual deficits in half by the end of his first term and still hasn’t offered a plan to reform the nation’s broken entitlement system. He has talked of making “modest adjustments” to entitlement programs while raising taxes only on the very rich, when any serious budget analysis shows that getting the debt under control will require either massive cuts to entitlement spending, huge tax increases on the middle class, or some combination of both.
This brings us to the two lines in Monday’s speech. He declared that, “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” This is Barack Obama, bold leader speaking (with an extra twist of irony given that the signature legislative accomplishment of his first term was supposedly aimed at containing the growth of health care costs). Then, he said, “But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” Translation: he isn’t going to do anything to seriously reform Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, and wants more economic stimulus spending, too. So, within a breath of calling for hard choices, he rejected the need for them. I can think of no more fitting summation of Obama’s presidency.
Me neither. Some presidents fail to achieve “greatness” not necessarily because they don’t have it in them but because they never face the sort of momentous crisis that offers an opportunity to demonstrate it. I recall reading somewhere that Bill Clinton once complained of that. The Cold War was over by the time he was sworn in and the war on terror was still years away (thanks in part to American inaction during Clinton’s presidency), so he’s remembered less for any “great” accomplishment than for momentarily reorienting Democrats away from Great Society statism. The twisted irony of Obama’s presidency, particularly in light of his emulation of Lincoln and Reagan, is that, like them, he does face a momentous crisis that requires leadership commensurate to the moment. He just doesn’t have it in him to lead on it, or maybe he’s too busy with other priorities. An economic rebound in his second term will delay the reckoning with entitlements for a few years longer so his legacy is probably safe in the near term, but if he doesn’t do something wildly unexpected in the next four years to deal seriously with mandatory spending, then his place in history is secure. He’s the guy who expanded health-care entitlements at a moment when Medicare spending was starting to go haywire, the guy who doubled down on the welfare state as the bill was coming due, the guy whose second-term agenda was even more aggressively liberal than his first despite trillions more in debt over four years. You wanted him, America, you got him. Good luck.