At one point, it seemed as though Barack Obama was set to become the great Democratic leader for the 21st century. Here is a man who was able to ride an impossibly good angle into the White House -- in just four years, he went from being an obscure state senator to president of the United States. What's more, he had in the House and Senate the most liberal majorities that anybody has seen since the 89th Congress that enacted most of the Great Society. Everything was primed for him to implement Great Society 2.0.
Except the reason that the country installed the Democrats in the first place was this economic crisis, which began under Republican leadership. But how to get one's face onto Mount Rushmore by only coaxing the economy to add jobs? William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge were managers of economic growth after contractions, and they have been dismissed by (usually liberal) historians with a collective wave of the hand for generations. No, no ... to be great you have to reform.
That explains why Obama focused so intensely on health care in the 111th Congress. It's not that this is what the country needed or even wanted in 2009. After all, by the end of that year, when the Senate leadership was twisting arms to get Obamacare passed, the percentage of adults employed stood at just 58.2 percent, down from 60.6 percent at the start of the year, and the lowest figure in more than a quarter century. The jobs crisis is what the country wanted to focus on, but liberal majorities of the kind in the 111th Congress just don't come around everyday. They had to get health care done!
I had thought for sure that the 111th and 112th Congresses would, for the president, be the difference between Mardi Gras and Lent. In the 111th, it was clear to all that the deficit crisis was coming, yet before the liberals mended their ways they needed to have one more entitlement spending spree. Save the fiscal austerity for the 112th Congress when the liberal majority would be no more.
But this is where I was wrong about President Obama. The 111th Congress was his Great Society moment: it passed a huge new entitlement program to get his name in the pantheon of great progressive leaders -- TR, FDR, LBJ, BO. Yet here it looks like he wants to pursue in the 112th Congress something like Kennedy's New Frontier -- as Tim Carney said last night, his very long State of the Union could be aptly summarized as "national greatness liberalism." Sure, we're facing an unimaginably large budget deficit. Sure, we've been talking lately about state and local governments possibly defaulting on their loans. Sure, our entitlement problem is about to become a crisis as the Baby Boomers are set to retire en masse. But we have to "win the future!" And how do we do that? Beef up the budget for the Department of Transportation, that's how!
Barack Obama is stuck in the 1960s. And it's not just because his style of liberalism -- spend, spend, spend! -- is reminiscent of that era. Liberals since the New Deal have enjoyed spending. It's because he likes to spend money as if we are in the middle of the greatest economic boom in the history of the nation, as if there's plenty of cash to go around. The country could afford, in the 1960s, to send a man to the moon and to create brand new entitlement programs. Real GDP increased, on average, by 4.4 percent every year for the whole decade. But those days are long gone. As much as getting a great return on an "investment" in infrastructure improvement is appealing, it's always a bad idea to invest one's spare cash when the creditors are about to bust down the door. Ever dime should go to deficit reduction -- not two for new spending, one for the deficit.
I don't think Obama realistically expects to get any of this new spending through the 112th Congress -- and, indeed, the State of the Union last night seemed more like a campaign address than anything else. If the president and his advisors are betting that national greatness liberalism can win an election in 2012, conservatives should take that bet. They need to run a candidate who brings this basic message: I'd love to improve our infrastructure as much as anybody, but the budget crisis requires us to put away our ambitions, put on the green eyeshades, and figure out how to stay open for business.