Beware Obama’s Big Ideas

The way President Barack Obama’s acolytes are calling for bold
action in his second term, you’d think he had been some kind of
prudent Calvin Coolidge in his first. “A strategic second term would begin by identifying a list of
necessary and achievable goals, and then pursuing them with the
unyielding manipulative skill of a Lyndon Johnson,” Washington
Post columnist David Ignatius wrote after Obama’s decisive
victory over hapless challenger Mitt Romney in November. “Think
big. Take risks. Get it done.”“Take this second chance to get it right on housing,” wrote
Tracy Van Slyke, director of something called the New Bottom Line,
at The Huffington Post, “and use your mandate to help the
millions of underwater homeowners across this country.”
Atlantic Associate Editor Matthew O’Brien didn’t even wait
for the election results to come in, calling on the president in
October to unveil a bold second-term agenda that would embrace the
“vision thing” by resurrecting his deep-sixed American Jobs
Act. Given that Obama won re-election largely by not talking about
his record, it’s probably not surprising that so many people don’t
seem to have noticed what happened from 2009 through 2012. To
recap, Obama rammed through a massive overhaul of medical care in
the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare.
He piled another $830 billion or so onto the national debt with his
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the stimulus. He
also managed to push total debt over $16 trillion. When the Affordable Care Act’s most radical component, the
requirement that every American be forced to purchase health
insurance, came up for Supreme Court review, the president’s
bumbling attorneys lucked into a tortured decision in their favor,
and the law was upheld by a 5-to-4 margin. Capitalizing on (though
not actually solving) the financial crisis that helped him gain
office, Obama in 2010 signed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and
Consumer Protection Act, bringing a massive new cudgel to the
financial industry (which had hardly been free of Washington
oversight and protection prior to that) and creating a federal
“consumer” agency whose scope is still not well
understood. Unfazed by a public rebuke in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama
continued his mission through a daunting new strategy of regulatory
rule making, executive orders, administration through “White House
liaison officers,” and recess appointments of congressionally
unpopular nominees. (These last have been carried out even when
Congress was not in recess.) Such tactics are necessary to patch a
weakness Obama has discovered in American government: the
foundational structure of checks and balances.“When Congress refuses to act, and as a result, hurts our
economy and puts our people at risk, then I have an obligation as
president to do what I can without them,” the president told a
crowd in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in January 2011. “I’ve got an
obligation to act on behalf of the American people. And I’m not
going to stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party
ideology ahead of the people that we were elected to serve. Not
with so much at stake, not at this make-or-break moment for
middle-class Americans. We’re not going to let that happen.”Following that bold conviction, Obama launched a war in Libya
without even the almost-constitutional fig leaf of a congressional
authorization vote (thus making him even less deferential to
Congress’ war-making power than George W. Bush). This “kinetic
action” seemed to be a rousing success until the U.S. ambassador
was killed by terrorists in September—an episode the administration
has worked tirelessly to obscure. Obama has also claimed powers of life and death beyond Bush’s
wildest ambitions, granting to himself a new presidential authority
to kill citizens and noncitizens alike, both on U.S. soil and
abroad, while asserting that an Oval Office discussion with
advisers qualifies as constitutional due process. After all that, what would Obama fans consider an ambitious
second-term agenda? I guess mandatory self-esteem boosts, universal
health care for cats, and a global war on melancholy haven’t been
tried yet. But Obama’s penchant for intervening in all aspects of
American life (according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he added
11,327 pages to the Code of Federal Regulations, a 7.4 percent
increase, in his first three years) while overlooking
constitutional niceties has produced a consistent pattern: As you
get more regulation, you get less law. For some of us, this is a problem. Law is big and clear. It
applies equally to the great and small. You can usually be
confident that a law has passed at least some level of civic
scrutiny. Regulation, by contrast, is small and stifling. It places
burdens primarily on individuals and small companies that don’t
have sufficient lawyerly infrastructure. And there’s no way to know which White House czar or career
apparatchik composed any particular regulation. For example, who at
Eric Holder’s Department of Justice (DOJ) decided in 2011 that the
Americans with Disabilities Act requires hotels, restaurants, and
airlines to accommodate “pygmy ponies” as service animals. (And
should we be glad the DOJ is mandating horse fairness instead of
giving more guns to Mexican drug cartels?)“The best is yet to come,” Obama promised in his November
victory speech. And the election result gave him some justification
for that promise. He won a lopsided electoral victory and, rare in
modern presidential races, a popular majority. This is what makes
the second term such a matter of concern.Nearly 61 million voters have gotten to know Obama’s mix of
soaring rhetoric and bureaucratic reality, messianic claims and
crushing mandates, cultish iconography and lawless actions, grand
hopes and bland changes. And they decided they wanted more of
it. I don’t expect that avoiding the “fiscal cliff” will be reward
enough for those folks. Obama came into office with talk of
reversing the tides, healing the earth, and “fundamentally
transforming the United States of America.” He has hinted at
delivering big things in the security of a second term. If the
first act was any indication, those things are going to suck.
 

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Beware Obama’s Big Ideas

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