Liberalism has its advantages. It puts government in the driver’s seat and encourages the creation of more and more government programs that sound good and seem nice. Who could be against them? In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama touted a College Scorecard his administration would develop “to give students and families clear information about college costs and quality.” Who could oppose that?
Conservatives should. A College Scorecard put together at the Department of Education in Washington is redundant, meeting a need that has long since been met. US News & World Report, the old newsmagazine, has been putting out college advice and rankings for years. Bookstores are teeming with college guides. The Internet offers plenty of free guidance.
Obama knows this. But there’s a political method in his policy madness. If programs lifted from the liberal book of dreams are enacted, Obama and his allies will be thrilled. If conservatives—congressional Republicans in this case—block those programs, that’s fine too. Democrats can exploit GOP opposition to winsome new programs to recapture the House in 2014 and transform Washington into a liberal juggernaut for the president’s final two years.
There’s an added benefit, a big one. Obama desperately wants to bury the deficit and debt issue by ignoring it, not by dealing with it. The media will help, as we’ve seen by their generally favorable coverage of his inaugural and State of the Union speeches. But Obama also needs a distraction from Republican emphasis on his fiscal recklessness.
If you think this tactic cannot work, think again. We’ve just seen it work brilliantly in Obama’s reelection campaign. The election was less a referendum on Obama’s first term—the norm for reelections—and more a negative verdict on Mitt Romney, the challenger. The Obama team cast Romney as a heartless corporate buccaneer and made him the centerpiece of its campaign. He was the distraction.
Given Obama’s professed goal of a “growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs,” he has no alternative except to target Republicans and make them the distraction. In effect, he’s accepted a slow growth, high unemployment, high tax, large debt economy, but he can’t acknowledge it for obvious reasons.
Nor can he turn to the most effective tools for stirring economic growth and job creation—that is, cutting tax rates on individual income and capital gains and reducing government spending. He just raised rates on income and capital gains and wants to increase spending. Besides, Obama is loath to unleash the private sector to boost the economy. That way, government loses control.
So what we get from Obama, for example, is a proposal for a network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes at a cost of $1 billion. He set one up in Ohio last year, plans to launch 3 more by executive order, and wants Congress to fund an additional 11. The institutes are—you’ve heard this before—a “partnership” of government, business, and local colleges that will “develop and build manufacturing technologies and capabilities.”
This tired idea has been kicking around the Department of Commerce bureaucracy for years, and wiser administrations saw it for what it is, a boondoggle likely to increase employment only by the number of persons staffing the institutes themselves. Somehow manufacturing boomed in the 1980s and 1990s without these institutes.
But not to hear Obama tell it. He traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, the day after his speech to spread the word. “There are things we can do right now to accelerate the resurgence of American manufacturing,” he said, starting with more of these “global centers.” They’re “number one” on his list of priorities.
Perhaps he believes they really can develop “the potential to revolutionize the way we make everything,” as he claimed the Ohio institute has. But he didn’t announce he’d immediately dispatch legislation to Capitol Hill, nor did he say he’d confer with members of Congress about authorizing more centers. Instead, he gave a speech in Asheville (in a right-to-work state, no less).
If Republicans roll their eyes at Obama’s plan for government-created innovation, as they should, you can almost hear Obama’s response now. Republicans don’t care about the middle class, they’re only looking out for the rich, they’re anti-innovation.
The president has also positioned Republicans to be enemies of the poor. He’s called for increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. Working at today’s minimum wage, the head of a family of four would earn $14,500 a year, less than the poverty level, he noted in his State of the Union speech and again in Asheville.
Only the uncaring could oppose a minimum wage hike, right? Faced with that question, Republicans may capitulate. They shouldn’t. Those earning $14,500 are potentially eligible for numerous stipends for the poor (food stamps, Medicaid, rent supplements), which mean they don’t live below the poverty line. And when the minimum wage rises, the number of jobs declines, counteracting Obama’s aim of adding jobs.
But the minimum wage is popular, and Obama’s proposal to make preschool available to all low- and medium-income families may be as well. According to economics columnist James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, it could cost as much as $100 billion over 10 years. But, as we’ve come to expect, Obama didn’t cite a price tag when he promoted the program in Decatur, Georgia, two days after the speech to Congress.
He insisted “study after study” shows early education achieves positive results. On the contrary, the federal preschool program, Head Start, has poor results. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on,” Obama said, “boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime.”
That must set a record for far-fetched claims for liberal social policy. But what difference does that make? The program is “for the children.” Are you against giving every child in America a chance in life? Or as Vice President Biden might say, “Even if it helps only one child …”
All this will soon confront Republicans. Obama won’t let go. And there’s still more in his grab bag of programs: the Select USA Investment Summit, an Energy Security Fund (actually, it’s a tax hike), the Fix It First project, the Partnership to Rebuild America, Project Rebuild, and Promise Zones.
For Republicans, the response may be easier than they think. It’s simple: Forget the politics and do what’s right. Obama thinks the public loves government programs and wants more, whatever the cost. If he’s right, Republicans are doomed regardless of what they do politically. If he’s wrong, a Republican comeback is slouching toward Washington.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.