What Does Obama Want?
What does Barack Obama want? That is the central question of his presidency that he has not answered. And he didn't answer it last night, either, in his first official State of the Union address. Sometimes presidents have their mission forced on them, which is what happened to George W. Bush, who was floundering before September 11. Other times, as in the case of Ronald Reagan, who had the twin goals of reviving the free enterprise system and defeating communism, they've been preparing for it their entire life. Obama came into office championing what he was not: not George W. Bush, not Dick Cheney. He was hope personified. He would unite the warring factions inside the Beltway.
Last night he spoke before a Congress that is more divided than ever and held out the fig-leaf of monthly meetings with Democratic and Republican leaders.
Fine. But it still doesn't really answer the question of what his program is for the next year. Consider health care. Obama said, "Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done. Let's get it done."
But Obama never explained what plan he endorses or how he envisions the House and Senate working together to achieve that goal. It's incredible that Congress devoted an entire year to health care, which, by the way, forms a big-too big-chunk of the economy, and may well come up with nothing. Unlike Reagan, who barnstormed the country pushing for his economic program of tax cuts, Obama himself has been largely missing in action on health care. When he doesn't say what he wants, then the public begins to wonder if he knows it himself, and finds him wanting as president.
No doubt the president struck a more populist tone. The voters are angry. Populism is back. But the funny thing is that Obama's stimulus and bank bailout plan actually worked. For all the huffing and puffing about the malefactors of wealth on Wall Street, it's not exactly a sign of economic progress if stocks are tanking. But Obama's pivot means he can't claim much credit for those successes. With unemployment high-and likely to remain so for the next year-Americans don't feel much uplift about being told that, in the words of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the AIG bailout helped avoid a Great Depression. Instead, Obama is supposed to end the misery quickly.
But his mix of handouts to the middle-class and proposed feel-good freeze on spending, apart from defense, won't help much. The mess isn't even really Obama's fault. Having inherited colossal budget deficits from his predecessor, he can't even get the Senate to agree to sign off on a commission to propose cuts and tax hikes to close the gap. The Democrats don't want to touch sacrosanct entitlement programs like Social Security. Republicans don't want to approve any tax hikes. So both sides converged to scuttle the bill. The result: Obama is appointing his own toothless commission.
The broader question-one that Obama, who is as intelligent a president as America has had-is whether the country is in permanent decline. Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation notes that while China is investing heavily in its infrastructure, Obama is touting a freeze, apart from spending lavishly on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: "In 2010, the cost of America's Iraq engagement will still run more than $150 billion. And add to that $100 billion plus for Afghanistan."
Interestingly, no one is paying much attention to foreign affairs at the moment: "Obama's Sole Mission: The Economy" reads today's Washington Post headline. But what about the cost of America's foreign wars? And why, by the way, is the Defense Department exempted from any freeze in spending?
Maybe the Supreme Court was on to something when it rolled back curbs on corporations contributing to political campaigns. Justice Samuel Alito mouthed, "not true," when Obama pointed out that foreign entities could spend to influence campaigns as well. But if the country continues on its current course, foreigners may be the only ones with the cash left to bankroll them.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.