Obama’s Progressive Gamble

By WSJ, Editorial

He bet his Presidency on expanding government because that’s who he is.

Many of our friends who saw genius in the crease of Barack Obama’s trousers four years ago lament that he might be cruising to re-election had he only focused first on the economy and postponed his liberal social priorities. This may be true, but it also misjudges the man and his Presidency.

Mr. Obama has governed from the left not because he miscalculated his priorities but because these are his priorities. His first term is best understood as a race to put himself in the pantheon of the great progressive Presidents—Wilson, FDR, LBJ—who expanded the state’s control over the private economy and over the wants and needs of the American middle class.

The price of this governing choice includes a weak recovery, achievements like ObamaCare that are unpopular, the loss of the House in 2010, and a polarized electorate. Unable to run on his record, he has conducted a low-down re-election campaign based on destroying his opponent’s character. If the polls are right, even if he wins re-election, he will do so as the first President since Wilson to win with a smaller margin than he did the first time.

But for Mr. Obama, this won’t matter. His great progressive gamble will have paid off. His second term will be about preserving the government gains of his first term, especially ObamaCare, and using regulation to press government control wherever else he can

Rhetorically, the Barack Obama of 2008 was a centrist, a post-ideological pragmatist who was color blind to “red” and “blue” in his “one America.” But anyone who inspected the policy details (see our editorial, “A Liberal Supermajority,” October 17, 2008) could see he favored by far the most liberal program of any Democratic nominee since George McGovern in 1972.

This tendency came to the fore in his first days in the White House, when the Obamateers turned to fiscal policy. The popular President might have combined ideas from both parties, blending for instance a major corporate tax cut with public works spending for an easy political triumph.

“Elections have consequences,” Mr. Obama instead told Republican Eric Cantor, “and Eric, I won.” He then outsourced his agenda to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and aging left-wing committee chairmen like Henry Waxman and David Obey whose policy ambitions had been frustrated since the 1980s.

 They did what comes naturally and wrote a bill that was all about transfer payments, temporary tax subsidies, green industrial policy, homeowner subsidies, 99 weeks of jobless benefits and all the rest. The spending bonanza benefited every Democratic interest group—except the Obama voters who wanted jobs and higher incomes.

The $830 billion might have been merely wasteful instead of destructive had Mr. Obama then turned to nurturing a durable expansion. The pre-eminent goal ought to have been to rebuild business and consumer confidence and encourage the revival of animal spirits.

Instead, with a filibuster-proof Senate of 60 Democrats, he began the Bataan death march to national health care—a new entitlement at a time when the current entitlement state is buckling and unaffordable. The Affordable Care Act is among the worst pieces of legislation ever passed, not least because Mr. Obama might have notched another bipartisan victory had he sought GOP input. When the bill ran into trouble with the public and even moderate Democrats, he plowed ahead anyway.

The health-care takeover was merely part of a larger liberal agenda that frightened investors as much as the events of 2008 and led to a hiring and capital strike. The missteps have been legion: the political bonfire over the AIG bonuses; overhauling the financial system from top to bottom, rather than a more considered approach; the regulatory surge, especially at the Environmental Protection Agency; punishing Chrysler bondholders for the benefit of the UAW; and through it all the promise to raise taxes in 2013.

About the only economic intervention Mr. Obama didn’t try post-stimulus was nationalizing the banks, and that was a close run thing. The White House even fought to the bitter end for a cap-and-trade bill that the House passed and would have imposed higher costs for electric power, transportation, manufacturing and most goods and services as this tax flowed down the energy chain.

Mr. Obama had numerous opportunities to see what was amiss politically and economically and correct his errors. There was the rise of the tea party and the summer 2009 popular rebellion against ObamaCare. Then Scott Brown’s Massachusetts election. Even after Republicans gained 63 seats in 2010, Mr. Obama might have imitated Bill Clinton after 1994 and made real bows toward centrist governing.

But that is not who he is. After a two-year extension of the Bush tax rates after 2010, he made no budget concessions and assailed the Paul Ryan budget as literally anti-American. He personally blew up a grand bargain with Speaker John Boehner in the debt-limit fracas after spurning his own deficit commission.

All of these were deliberate political choices, part of his progressive gamble that it will all be worth it if he can win re-election. Higher taxes are already locked into place, ObamaCare’s subsidies are ready to roll out, and the regulatory wave he has delayed past Election Day can recommence. He’ll have put the government in such a dominant position that its new powers will take decades to roll back or reform.

Mr. Obama’s trouser-crease admirers now say they hope Mr. Obama will emerge as a bigger man in his second term, and lately he has been using the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to revive his postpartisan aura of 2008. But there is nothing—not one policy choice—in his first-term record to suggest this is anything but another ruse to attract independents.

In his more candid moments, Mr. Obama has said he wants to be the progressive version of Reagan, that his goal is “fundamentally transforming” America. If he’s re-elected, that is what he will continue to try to do.

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