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The Myth of a Moderate Obama

http://nationalinterest.org/print/article/the-myth-moderate-obam...

Published on The National Interest (http://nationalinterest.org)


Source URL (retrieved on Sep 23, 2013): http://nationalinterest.org/article/the-myth-moderate-obama-8376

The Myth of a Moderate Obama


From the May-June 2013 [1] issue Share Share Share Share | More More [2] Robert W. Merry [3] | May 1, 2013 Robert W. Merry [3]

THE GREATEST myth in American politics today is the view, perpetrated by the Democratic Left and elements of the news media, that Barack Obama is a political moderate. In truth he represents an ideology that is barely within the American mainstream as understood over two and a quarter centuries of political experience. Indeed, the crisis of American politics in our time is a crisis of political deadlock, and it is a deadlock born largely of the presidents resolve to push an agenda for which he has no clear national consensus. That agenda turns on a number of pivots related mostly to the size and role of government and its level of intrusiveness into the lives of Americans. If Obama has his way through the remainder of his presidency, and he thoroughly intends to, he will leave behind an American polity very different from the one he inherited. But, aided and abetted by news-media acolytes, he has managed to nesse his true domestic intentions. And his intentions, given the political strife they unleash and the threat to scal soundness they pose, could seriously undermine Americas standing in the world. Throughout Americas political history a fundamental fault line has divided those who wish

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The Myth of a Moderate Obama

http://nationalinterest.org/print/article/the-myth-moderate-obam...

to enhance and aggrandize the power of government and those who fear the abuse of unchecked governmental prerogative. Every citizen with a political consciousness stands on one side or the other of that divide. Those who want more power invested in government are liberals; those who dont are conservatives. Thus can one determine the fundamental political outlook of his fellow citizens though this one litmus test. But within the contingent on the liberal side of the fault line can be seen wide variations in the extent to which particular politicians wish to expand and empower government. SomeBill Clinton, for instancehave been content to operate largely within the power interrelationships they inherited. Othersincluding Obamawant to infuse government with powers and prerogatives far beyond their previous scope. In our history, the great opponents of governmental aggrandizement have been Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. Often citing the Constitution, they fought their adversaries efforts to expand governmental power and activity. In the Republics early decades, this effort was highly successful. Jefferson pummeled Alexander Hamiltons political machine, and his opposition to the Hamilton philosophy, carried through by his two successors (James Madison and James Monroe), essentially killed Hamiltons Federalist Party. Jackson and Polk held at bay the American System of Henry Clay, and each in turn thwarted Clays presidential ambitions in the 1832 and 1844 elections. Clays Whig Party, that eras big-government institution, brought forth only two elected presidents (both army generals) during its quarter century of existence. A century later, Coolidge forged a limited-government philosophy into a popular governing salient as he cleaned up the mess left by Woodrow Wilsonwho, in taking the country into World War I, greatly expanded governmental authority, bruised the nations political sensibilities through unprecedented federal intrusiveness and ruined the economy. Half a century later, Reagan sought to reverse long decades of steady governmental growth set in motion with powerful force by Franklin Roosevelt and pushed further by Lyndon Johnson. These presidents shared a commitment to low taxes, small government, hard money and strict construction of the Constitution. Jefferson eliminated internal taxes, cut the size of government and reduced the national debt. Jackson reduced tariff rates, actually paid off the national debt (for the rst and last time), and vetoed legislation designed to expand the scope of government. Polk cut tariff rates further and established an independent treasury designed to maintain currency stability. Coolidge slashed income-tax rates along with governmental expenditures and trimmed the national debt to $17.65 billion from $27 billion. Reagan cut the growth rate in federal domestic spending, acquiesced in a Federal Reserve tight-money regimen that could have destroyed his presidency (but ultimately killed spiraling ination) and cut the top income-tax rate to 28 percent from 70 percent. All enjoyed substantial popularity (though Polks war with Mexico undercut his standing with voters), and all represent a powerful strain of political sentiment in the American tradition. BUT THERE is another strain much more favorable toward governmental aggrandizement. The great exponents of this philosophy were Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. And now Obama. (Abraham Lincoln consolidated federal and executive power with a strong will during the Civil War, but he did so in ways designed to make the consolidations largely temporary.) Wilsons effort to expand governmental authority came a cropper, as we have seen, through wartime initiatives that upended the economy. The result was a national resolve to return to normalcy, which paved the way for Coolidge. Then came the Great Depression and the ensuing global chaos that spawned World War
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The Myth of a Moderate Obama

http://nationalinterest.org/print/article/the-myth-moderate-obam...

II. It was a great opportunity to expand the federal government, and FDR grabbed it with zest and contempt for the check-on-government sensibilities of his predecessors. His instrument was the federal income tax, rst enacted in 1913. Not only did he jack up the top rate to a conscatory 91 percent during the war, but he also greatly expanded the number of Americans on the tax rollsto thirty-nine million from four millionby reducing the personal exemption and lowering the income level at which workers must start paying taxes. Meanwhile, low-end wage earners saw their starting tax rate go up to 24 percent from just 4 percent, according to Burton Folsom Jr. and Anita Folsom of Hillsdale College. Roosevelt accompanied his economic assault on the nations wealthy with a vicious rhetorical attack, railing against the purblind rich and their swollen fortunes. FDRs Senate ally, Kentuckys Democratic senator A. B. Happy Chandler, actually suggested that the government can take everything we have if the government needs it. Just as Obamas opponents today object to his class warfare rhetoric, FDRs opponents attacked his prejudicial class baiting, as Michigans Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg called it. Roosevelt created a new America with a much larger and more intrusive government. But, after his rst reelection victory in 1936 and his court-packing power grab of 1937, voters put a clamp on his New Deal by handing him a big defeat in the 1938 congressional elections. Then thirty years later LBJ sought to build upon the New Deal legacy with his Great Society, promoted in conjunction with the nations need to address its unnished business in civil rights. Richard Nixon continued the Johnson approach in the regulatory realm, in part to further his crucial war aims, but efforts to expand the federal bureaucracy were largely put on hold. Meanwhile, economic dislocations wrought by unwise scal policies in the late 1960s and through the 1970s created an economic crisis that brought Reagan to the White House in 1980, and the political balance of power shifted to the Jefferson-Jackson-Polk-Coolidge philosophy. Bill Clinton began his rst presidential term by saying he wanted to repeal Reaganism, then began his reelection campaign, after being chastened by voters in the 1994 midterm elections, with the words, The era of big government is over. NOW OBAMA wants to establish a new era of big government. His central ideological weapon, like Roosevelts, is the tax code. His chief rhetorical weapon, again like Roosevelts, is prejudicial class baiting. But there are some important differences between Obama now and Roosevelt then. First, Obama is seeking to expand the federal governments reach far beyond anything FDR could accomplish. His Obamacare health program inserts the federal government more directly than ever into some 15 percent of the economy. His Dodd-Frank legislation, including the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, seeks to regulate nancial markets through widespread bureaucratic meddling (a far different approach than FDRs simpler Glass-Steagall proscriptions on certain nancial-institution activities). His cap-and-trade energy legislation, rejected by the Senate in his rst term, seems to be back on the agenda, even as he seeks to use government funds to promote a clean-energy industry. And he is employing the countrys regulatory apparatus more aggressively than ever. As David Brooks of the New York Times has written, Capitalism is just a feeding trough that government can use to fuel its expansion. Second, Obamas zest for power seems to breed a contempt for the legislative and judicial branches of government. Since Congress rejected his cap-and-trade legislation, he has sought to implement much of it through regulatory activity and executive decision making.
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The Myth of a Moderate Obama

http://nationalinterest.org/print/article/the-myth-moderate-obam...

In unleashing military action in Libya, he stiffed Congresss constitutional authority in war-making decisions. His drone-warfare efforts have been conducted largely without regard to the sensibilities of Congress. He has entered into a binding agreementa quasi treaty, reallyoutlining U.S. relations with Afghanistan without seeking congressional consultation, although the Afghan legislature voted on it. He sought to make recess appointments when Congress wasnt in recess; when a federal court declared three such appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) illegal, his NLRB simply ignored the court and proceeded with its agenda. Third, and perhaps most important, Obama coddles the middle class even as he goes after the so-called wealthy. Recall that Roosevelt expanded the number of Americans subject to the income tax, which brought a certain balance to his soak-the-rich tax initiatives. Just about everybody had to pay something. But Obamas class-baiting takes place in a context in which half of U.S. households dont pay federal income tax at all. Hence his class assaults drive a powerful wedge between the wealthier citizens, deemed responsible for most of the countrys ills, and the rest of society, who are considered blameless and held harmless. This at a time when the top 1 percent of Americans pay 37 percent of all income taxes, while the top 5 percent pay nearly 60 percent. Further, every thinking American knows that the countrys out-of-control entitlement system is signicantly responsible for its public-debt overhang, which represents the most dire threat facing the country today. Yet Obama offers to address this problemin limited ways only if opposition Republicans agree to further lopsided tax increases on the wealthy. His underlying aim seems to be to get a compromise budget bill through the Senate so he can resume his class-driven assault on House Republicansand thrust that wedge ever deeper into the nations political consciousness. This is new. And it bears a greater resemblance to Latin American populism than to the U.S. political tradition. As Charles Krauthammer has written, Obamas populism is so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez. Too true. But Venezuelas Chavez had what the Economist calls an oil-fueled bounty to buy himself popular support, with social programmes and handouts. Obama only has the American rich, and he cant squeeze enough bounty from that source to sustain the magnitude of his programs and handouts without breaking the U.S. economy. The only question is how much damage he will be able to generate before the next election. Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy. More by Robert W. Merry [3] Topics: The Presidency [4] Politics [5] Regions: United States [6] Tags: American Federalist Party [7] Democratic Left [8] US Federal Reserve [9] Whig Party [10] Abraham Lincoln [11] Alexander Hamilton [12] Andrew Jackson [13] Barack Obama [14] Bill Clinton [15] Calvin Coolidge [16] Franklin Roosevelt [17] Henry Clay [18] James Monroe [19] James Polk [20] Lyndon Johnson [21] Ronald Reagan [22] Thomas Jefferson [23] Woodrow Wilson [24] Barack Obama [25] Democratic Party [26] Economic history of the United States [27] Political parties in the United States [28] Politics [29] Politics of the United States [30] United States [31]
Source URL (retrieved on Sep 23, 2013): http://nationalinterest.org/article/the-myth-moderate-obama-8376 Links:

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The Myth of a Moderate Obama

http://nationalinterest.org/print/article/the-myth-moderate-obam...

[1] http://nationalinterest.org/issue/may-june-2013 [2] http://www.addthis.com/bookmark.php?v=250&username=nationalinterest [3] http://nationalinterest.org/prole/robert-w-merry-0 [4] http://nationalinterest.org/topic/politics/the-presidency [5] http://nationalinterest.org/topic/politics [6] http://nationalinterest.org/region/americas/north-america/united-states [7] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/organization/american-federalist-party [8] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/organization/democratic-left [9] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/organization/us-federal-reserve [10] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/organization/whig-party [11] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/abraham-lincoln [12] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/alexander-hamilton [13] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/andrew-jackson [14] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/barack-obama [15] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/bill-clinton [16] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/calvin-coolidge [17] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/franklin-roosevelt [18] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/henry-clay [19] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/james-monroe [20] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/james-polk [21] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/lyndon-johnson [22] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/ronald-reagan [23] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/thomas-jefferson [24] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/person/woodrow-wilson [25] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/barack-obama [26] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/democratic-party [27] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/economic-history-of-the-united-states [28] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/political-parties-in-the-united-states [29] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/politics [30] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/politics-of-the-united-states [31] http://nationalinterest.org/tag/united-states

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