By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR
Bill Clinton, who speaks to the Democratic convention Wednesday night, once lamented that he didn’t have a world-historical crisis to deal with on his watch. The irony is that President Obama had one and was too busy with his own priorities to notice or give the country the leadership it needed.
Democrats may neglect the world while in Charlotte, but the world won’t be neglecting them. The latest signs show Japan sinking back into deflation. China appears to be on the verge of some awful reckoning. Everyone knows about Europe. The financial crisis that greeted Mr. Obama in his first days turns out not to have been a passing storm but the introduction to a long season of global turmoil that may get worse before it gets better.
The U.S. still has massive internal reserves of strength and vitality to grow even when the world is troubled. But you know the story there. We’ve had other priorities the last four years.
Too pat is the claim that we suffered a debt binge and therefore recovery must be slow. President Obama, each day, chooses what to do and what not to do. Failing to attack Boeing for building a nonunion plant in South Carolina might not have fixed everything. Directing stimulus dollars to useful, practical projects rather than propping up public-sector unions and subsidizing green energy boondoggles might not have fixed everything.
Spending the president’s valuable political capital to clean up the excesses of our tax system rather than doubling down on the excesses of our health system might not have fixed everything.
But different decisions would have made a different presidency and would have been seen differently by the public, and would likely be manifested in faster growth now.
How do we know? Presidents get more blame and credit than they deserve, but Mr. Obama had the fortune or misfortune to land at a time when the president was unusually central to the economy. Some truths are so big they’re almost hard to notice. Ford avoided a bailout in 2008 only because of the fluky fact that it already borrowed $24 billion and put it in the bank before the financial crisis. Now every company wants to be Ford, with enough cash to survive a meltdown that may be coming next year, or next month, without depending on the whims of federal bailout politics.
Feeling roughly the same is every consumer, and every small-business owner, when deciding whether to spend an extra dollar or shove it in the mattress.
Even the Federal Reserve’s unorthodox efforts on behalf of confidence keep having the opposite effect, stimulating a dash for “safe” assets by non-speculators more fearful than ever about the future.
One way to read all this is as evidence of the job Mr. Obama didn’t do—we’d say the job he sacrificed in order to pursue his own agenda—the job of restoring a basic trust that Washington’s policies aren’t leading to some greater catastrophe down the road.
And it’s hard to imagine how the result wouldn’t have been faster growth. Faster growth would have done a lot more to advance Mr. Obama’s own professed aims—improved access to health care, jobs and opportunity—than any of his own big initiatives have done. Faster growth would have done a lot more to prepare the country to face its large challenges, with less conflict and less zero-sum bitterness, than any post-partisan magic he hoped to spread around.
Democrats have their all-purpose rejoinder: The GOP wouldn’t cooperate, was bent on obstruction. That’s doubtful, but even if true, so what? Voters would have seen their president pursuing confidence-inspiring goals rather than confidence-sapping ones. Most of all, they wouldn’t have seen him cramming through a giant, unaffordable new entitlement and selling it with accounting fraud. He would have told his aides: “I want growth. Give me only things that promote growth.”
But Mr. Obama came to office with the idea that our politics and politicians were useless and unproductive before his advent.
He would do big things, which in his shibboleth-y mind meant a bunch of things that took no account of the world that actually greeted him in office.
One marvels even today that he hasn’t done as other presidents in his situation have done, engaging in a symbolic housecleaning or staff purge to signal that he understands the public is dissatisfied. Sorry for the bluntness, but the reason is Mr. Obama, his grandiosity, his inability fundamentally to question himself.
His whole strategy now is one of libel and slander against his opponent. He can’t win a race of Obama against any serviceable alternative. He can only win a race of Obama versus Freddy Krueger.
And he dare not ask himself honestly how he got in this situation—or consult any aide who isn’t preprogrammed with the response: “It’s Bush’s fault.”
This Op-ed appeared on the WSJ Wednesday edition