Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Obama’s Blame Game

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

We are told there are lots of reasons why borrowing $5 trillion in less than three years and federalizing healthcare have not yet restored prosperity.

The residents of George Orwell’s Oceania daily screamed at the infamous visage of arch-enemy of the people Emmanuel Goldstein. In the same way, almost every week for the last 140, Americans have been reminded just how nefarious and lasting was the work of George W. Bush. Now ensconced somewhere in Texas, Bush, in insidious ways, somehow still blocks our collective recovery.

Wall Street likewise continues to conspire to thwart Americans. “Fat-cat bankers,” “millionaires and billionaires,” people who fly in “corporate jets,” and those who “don’t pay their fair share” and who junket to Las Vegas or jet to the Super Bowl “on the taxpayers’ dime” have all ignored the president’s warnings. Did they not hear that “now is not the time for profit” and “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money”?

There are other guilty parties. The president also reminded us that there are fewer bank-teller jobs because of ATMs. And he added that online ticketing has meant that there is likewise far less employment for travel agents. Such accelerated automation after January 2009 apparently helps explain why unemployment is still over 9 percent.

And if technologically induced instability were not enough, there is the culpable Republican-controlled House. Until November 2010, a considerable Democratic majority in the House and a super-majority in the Senate were supposedly allowing the president to make headway. But then, for still poorly understood reasons, the people foolishly voted in a Republican majority in the House. The new Congress that was seated in January stopped the Obama success of the prior 24 months in its tracks. Since then, for the last nine months, the president has had to “fight Congress” in a way he had apparently not had to in his first two years of triumph. “They need to do their job,” the president remarked of the mysterious congressional ennui that started in January of this year.

The president also noticed that sometimes even the gods conspire to derail the expected recovery. In August, in a series of speeches, Mr. Obama outlined the perfect storm that had hit us — a veritable quadrafecta of unexpected bad news. First there was the Arab Spring, which created global uncertainty. Then oil prices spiked and sidetracked the nascent recovery. To top that off, the Japanese tsunami did its share to halt the president’s plans for economic restoration. Nor, he reminded us, should we forget the financial uncertainty in Europe.

Former top Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee best summed up the weird alignment of the stars: “Earthquakes, tsunamis, revolutions in the Middle East, financial crisis, and now we even have earthquakes outside of Washington, DC.” Other administration spokesmen noted the deleterious role of Hurricane Irene, which interrupted the president’s vacation and paralyzed the East Coast. Earlier they had noted the damage done by BP and the seemingly unending oil spill. In other words, if Republicans in Congress and ATMs were not enough, we also had Arabs, Japanese, Europeans, and the angry earth shaker and tidal-wave maker, Poseidon, all in league against this administration.

But Bush, Republicans, foreigners, high tech, and divine retribution do not alone explain the continued economic stagnation. Most recently, a reflective President Obama told us he now thinks our problems are even more existential. We, the American people, he concluded, are also the problem: “The way I think about it is, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft, and we didn’t have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades.” Apparently, our lackadaisical natures have been eroding even more since 2009, and so they also do their part in preventing us from restoring economic growth.

Note that the president believes that citing such extraneous causes is not blame-gaming. That’s why, not long ago, he warned high-school students that “It’s the easiest thing in the world to start looking around for someone to blame.”

There are four factors that explain why the amorphous “they” do all sorts of strange things to convince President Obama that our problems are not historic deficits, huge increases in entitlements, a vast new health-care program, anti-business rhetoric, federal interventions against private enterprise, and new government regulations, which collectively have terrified the private sector, demoralized consumers, and put us on the path to European-style stagnation.

First, much of the Obama blame-gaming is apparently sincere. The president and his economic advisers, most of them now departed, really did believe that too little government spending and not enough taxes accounted for the sluggishness. In almost religious fashion, they believed that near-zero interest rates, trillion-dollar-plus deficits, exploding government spending, greater regulation, and more entitlements would ensure recovery.

This religion was based on a misreading of the 2008 meltdown that put blame solely on Wall Street, rather than including federal lending agencies that, with their guarantees and mandates, warped market reality by encouraging risky home loans. Obama and his advisers also mistakenly thought Republicans were tax-cutting free-marketeers in need of Keynesian correction. In fact, a statist government grew enormously under President Bush. Millions of Americans were excused from the tax rolls, and vast new entitlements went unpaid for. In other words, Obama was a reactionary who vastly expanded what already was growing dangerous. He is not yet to the point of accepting that his worldview results in collective impoverishment — and he will continue to blame any and all until he faces that unpalatable reality.

Second, blaming is always a symptom of first-time responsibility. As a gifted rhetorician, Barack Obama charmed and talked his way into the Ivy League, law school, and a lectureship, and reinvented an unexceptional and brief Senate career as a mythical bipartisan achievement. He ran for president on grand talk about Bush’s nefariousness from Guantanamo to Iraq. Now, for the first time in his life, he is responsible for something other than soaring platitudes and easy invective. He clearly is uncomfortable with that newfound responsibility and so blames others for his novel “buck stops here” predicament.

Third, Obama has picked up a lot of technocratic data but little common sense, or even the sorts of basic facts that most people acquire in the workplace. Only a hothouse plant would think that inflating tires and getting “tune-ups” are a substitute for greater petroleum production. “Millions of green jobs” is the sort of pie-in-the-sky theorizing one hears in the faculty lounge among tenured apparatchiks, but which means little to a small businessman who must meet a payroll. No business or household off the subsidized campus or government dole could run the way Obama runs the government — and it shows in his naïveté about what is ruining the recovery.

Lastly, there are no consequences for Obama’s blaming his failed economic policy on someone else. The media long ago gave up their role as presidential watchdogs and became invested in Obama’s success. Obama knew that he could golf far more with exemption than George W. Bush could. He could renounce public campaign financing and shake down Goldman Sachs and BP for record donations — and still demagogue Wall Street greed. Polls suggest that the public has finally grown tired of Obama’s finger-pointing and his embarrassing contradictions. No matter — Obama himself knows that those who deliver and shape the news will never hold him to account.

George McClellan telegraphed President Lincoln weekly to tell him how other people and things had stalled the Army of the Potomac — in a way Ulysses S. Grant never did. Douglas MacArthur blamed the surprise Chinese invasion of Korea on the Truman administration, Congress, Communists, his Pentagon overseers, and other officers — in a way unknown to his successor, Matthew Ridgway. William Westmoreland thought the politicians and the Sixties lost him Vietnam — in a way foreign to the thinking of his successor, Creighton Abrams. Before David Petraeus, U.S. generals in Baghdad blamed their civilian overseers, Iraqis, someone else’s strategy, Washington neo-cons, or enemy terrorists for their failure to secure Iraq.

Attention, Mr. President: History is not kind to blame-gamers.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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