President Obama is more perceptive about the shortcomings of government than we thought. “We have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Wow!
And pity the poor businessman who doesn’t know which federal agency to turn to for help. “If you’re a small business person getting started, you may think you need to go to the Small Business Administration on one thing [and] you have got to go to Commerce on another,” he said. “We have got, for example, 16 different agencies . . . to help businesses, large and small, in all kinds of ways, whether it’s helping to finance them, helping them to export.”
That’s not all he knows. The way the government—his government—purchases technology is “cumbersome, complicated, and outdated,” according to the president. He’s also discovered, he revealed at a press conference, that “insurance is complicated to buy.” And he’s aware that renewing a driver’s license takes “a long time.” Why, he asked in the Matthews interview, “do you have to do a written driving test if you already have your license?”
Good question. Indeed, it comes at a critical moment. Gallup, the polling people, found in December that nearly three-quarters of Americans feel big government is a larger threat to our country in the future than big business or big labor. On this, a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents agree. So Obama is in good company.
But there’s a rub, a contradiction, a colossal disconnect. The president is largely correct in his critique of government, its inefficiencies, and its multiplicity of agencies assigned to the same task. Yet his approach to every issue is exactly what he recognizes as a problem: more and more government. Based on his policies, he’s a government man through and through.
Consider the proposals he offered recently to curb income inequality. He would raise the minimum wage yet again, though it reduces the number of jobs and keeps young workers from climbing onto the job ladder. He’s for tax reform that closes tax loopholes. Then he’d spend the savings on infrastructure, education, and research, all government programs. He would cancel the sequester cuts in the budget. And guess what? He’d spend the money on more government. He’d rush to the aid of the unemployed by extending their jobless benefits, which in all likelihood would ensure they remain unemployed.
Or consider his recipe for bolstering manufacturing. One of Obama’s favorite schemes is to create 15 government-run “manufacturing innovation institutes.” Doesn’t he know government is the last place to look for advice on innovation? He’s for “ensuring U.S. leadership in clean energy and advanced vehicle manufacturing,” a White House paper says. How would he achieve that? By “investing” government funds in those projects. The president is also keen on partnerships between business and government. For instance, he favors an “Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership.” In this case, he’d spend $113 million in “targeted financial assistance” to five communities. And the list goes on.
When Obama delivers a State of the Union address, nongovernment proposals are hard to find, if they exist at all. Last January, he called for a vast program of preschool for 4-year-olds in low- or moderate-income families, funded by government. He asked for more government control of guns. His plan for addressing global warming would have government arbitrarily impose a national limit on greenhouse gas emissions.
The president often cites his wish to streamline government and get rid of outdated or harmful regulations. But nothing happens on the regulatory front except that the pile of new regulations grows. He’s for cutting the corporate tax rate to 28 percent (and 25 percent for manufacturers) from 35 percent, but he hasn’t lifted a finger to enact it. And his idea for solving the problem of too many government departments doing the same thing: He’d consolidate the pack of them.
What explains Obama’s toleration of government-run everything when he knows the downside so well? One reason is his need for control. Liberal ideologues are leery of incentivizing the private sector and wealthy individuals to invest, innovate, and create jobs. While such a policy has a history of having worked, the cost—yielding power over the economy—is too high for Obama.
A second reason is the Democratic base. It consists of liberal interest groups that dislike free market capitalism. Obama is wary of bucking them. So he knuckles under to environmentalists who oppose the Keystone pipeline. He suffers unions gladly since they lavishly fund Democratic campaigns, including his own. The same for trial lawyers.
It’s reasonable to assume the president really does know better about government. And as he approaches his final three years in the White House, he should trust what his instincts and his experience are telling him. What an impact he could have if he attacked the excesses of government with the same vigor with which he attacks political opponents. And what a legacy he would leave.