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Obama's Rhetorical Retreat

Has reality finally caught up with the president?

David Harsanyi
January 27, 2010

Tax credits? Spending freezes? Deficit commissions? The president is starting to sound a lot like one of those fiscal he-devils the Democrats have been warning the nation about for years.

Not to worry, true believers, Barack Obama only sounds as if he's making sense. The proposed three-year freeze sham accounts for less than a measly one-sixth of the federal budget, and the deficit panel already has been voted down in the Senate.

But sounding like you mean it is half the battle—as the Republican Party has learned over the past 15 years. And one of the major political missteps of the Obama administration has been confusing the agenda of the progressive left with that of the American electorate.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, for example, finds that more than 80 percent of adults believe that jobs and the economy should be the two top priorities of Washington—issues that were used to further the administration's no-serious-crisis-left-behind project and little else.

To my astonishment, nowhere in the Pew poll could I find the words "Copenhagen," "worldwide presidential apology tour," "Chicago Olympic bid," "social justice," "bankers make too much dough," or even "bail out GM; America needs the Acadia." Still, these subjects were a matter of considerable urgency and expended political capital in Washington this year.

Perhaps it's self-delusion. After all, the number of times Obama has affixed the word "urgent" to his own agenda is unquantifiable. Cap and trade was "urgent." On the campaign trail, in fact, Obama claimed that "few challenges facing America ... are more urgent than combating climate change."

And this is true, if by "few" the president means 20 other issues, as the Pew poll puts global warming 21st on the urgent policy list—or, in other words, last.

Just as "urgent action" was needed to pass the government stimulus plan to bump unemployment to a more numerically manageable 10 percent, the rising cost of health care—an important issue once the president decides to address it—was Washington's responsibility to fix because it was a "longstanding and urgent problem."

According to Pew, health care reform falls in behind "economy," "jobs," "terrorism," "education," "deficit reduction," "Medicare," "Social Security," and so on. All of them urgent.

You will, almost certainly, not be surprised to learn that a deficit reduction commission, according to the president, is "urgent," as the country faces a serious fiscal crisis, all of which, even a year later, is the Bush administration's fault because it failed "to pay for new policies."

One empathizes. Yet this grievance would hold more water if the Obama administration hadn't spent more than any presidential administration in history has in its first year. Let's also remember that this dubious feat was accomplished without passing two of the most expensive pieces of legislative items on the statist menu.

Now, with the shadow of Scott Brown descending on D.C., we're in for a rhetorical recalibration. Obama will sound like an ardent fiscal conservative while simultaneously ratcheting up populist anger regarding banks, risk, profits, and make-believe unfettered capitalism.

Do Americans feel an urgent need to stick it to the investor class? Financial regulations rank as the 15th-most important concern, behind "helping the poor," "moral decline," and "crime." So I doubt it. But we'll see what happens.

Yet it is difficult to deny that after only one year in power, the administration has been forced to admit its vision of economic intervention has been soundly rejected. All one needs to do is listen.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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