Obama’s Theorems

The people don’t believe any more.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Part of the problem with the president’s agenda is that it is predicated on a number of radical ideas that are asserted, rather than proven. His experts and the elites assure us of a reality that most people in their own more mundane lives have not found to be true. In short, they may find Obama personally engaging, but they no longer believe what he says.

Take cap-and-trade legislation. We are asked to endanger an already-weak U.S. economy with a series of incentives and punishments to discourage the use of carbon-based fuels, with which — whether shale, natural gas, coal, or petroleum — America is rather well endowed.

A number of eminent scientists, along with environmental advocates such as Mr. Gore, lecture us that global warming as a manmade phenomenon is unimpeachable. But this month Americans are shivering through one of the coldest Octobers in memory, whether in Idaho, Colorado, or Michigan. They understand that over the last decade average global temperatures did not spike; in fact, they slightly decreased.

We are advised, of course, to look at larger trends to grasp the full extent of the looming disaster. But again, that is a more abstract proposition. And it is not one that is enhanced by elite condescension. In the here and now, the weather seems cooler, and it has for a decade. Voters, unless convinced otherwise, are not about to invest trillions on a theorem.

If borrowing money is the right way to get us out of the recession, the public wants to know why we do not call it “borrowing,” rather than “stimulus.” If well over a trillion dollars in new debt was supposedly essential to restarting the economy, why not three, four, or five trillion more to make recovery a sure thing? And if Americans know from first-hand experience that charging purchases on their credit cards is optional, quick, easy, and fun, but that paying them off is necessary, slow, difficult, and unpleasant, why would they think their government’s charges would be any different?

We are in a terrible energy crisis, we are told: Petroleum supplies have spiked, and we must immediately convert to mass transit, hybrids, biofuels, and electric cars. Such concern is wise, since oil is indeed a finite product. And while this recession has unexpectedly given us a reprieve from crippling oil prices, it is only a reprieve.

But be that as it may, the public sees no reason why it should not hedge its bets. Why not keep frantically searching for oil and gas, both to avoid going broke by buying expensive imported fuels, and to ensure America’s political autonomy from the likes of Chávez, Putin, and the Saudis?

The annual World Gas Association conference in Argentina just announced that new finds — many of them in North America — have pushed natural-gas reserves up to 1.2 trillion oil-equivalent barrels. Recent discoveries of huge fields in the Dakotas, the Gulf of Mexico, and the interior of California remind the public that there are still enormous domestic resources, which, if tapped, could tide us over until solar power, windmills, and biofuels become more economical. Developing all our energy resources, rather than using often-changing parameters to brand some sources environmentally incorrect (is nuclear power still taboo, sort of okay, or acceptable in terms of global warming?), seems far wiser to voters.

Healthcare reform presents the same disconnect. The public is told the president’s radical overhaul of American medicine will save trillions of dollars. But the public wonders how that could be when more people are to be covered, with greater government intrusion.

They do not believe that the government — given vast unfunded liabilities from Medicare, Social Security, and the Postal Service — is particularly efficient. Or that all those who do not purchase private medical insurance are indigent or being “murdered” in a “holocaust,” rather than, in at least a few cases, simply gambling that they will stay healthy and preferring to spend their cash on other things.

If ridding Medicare of waste and fraud will help pay for nationalized healthcare, why have we waited this long to realize such economies? And if Medicare is admittedly rife with abuse, why would an even larger government-run program be singularly exempt from the same inherent dangers?

Abroad, there is the same commonsense intuition that something about the president’s talk does not quite seem right. One or two apologies might convey magnanimity; three or more reveal obsequiousness. Apologizing to a cranky neighbor for mowing on a Sunday morning is wise; apologizing to the entire block for an array of past sins does not just ensure ridicule, but could prove downright dangerous.

There is a reason why previous presidents were skeptical of Ahmadinejad, Assad, Castro, Chávez, Morales, and Putin, and it had nothing to do with Bush’s strut or twang. When Obama acts as if these rogues have been misunderstood, he might be right about one of them but not all of them — and it would not be because they were collectively and gratuitously alienated by the United States.

When told that Obama’s resonance abroad and forthright candor about what America has done wrong should be welcomed, since it makes us better liked, not all the public agrees. Some prefer not to be liked by some abroad; others wonder whether the president wants himself or the United States in general to be the more popular. If Obama can be quite detailed about all the things America has done wrong in the past, could he just once offer the same specificity about what we’ve done right — especially since America seems a far more prosperous and successful country today than, say, Egypt, Kenya, or India?

Something is also not quite right about Afghanistan. We are lectured ad nauseam that Bush took his eye off the good war to fight the optional and hopeless one in Iraq, while Obama for years has promised to reset priorities by finishing off the Taliban and bin Laden.

But that narrative troubles the public. If we neglected the war in Afghanistan, why were almost no Americans dying there between 2001 and 2006? In some years of war, fewer perished in twelve months in Afghanistan than in a single month in Iraq. Either both sides went into an agreed-on remission, or both sides simultaneously escalated elsewhere, turning to the hotter theater in Iraq. If we took our eye off the ball, did not radical Islam as well, when it called forth thousands to flock to Anbar Province?

If Bush was crazy to think that an oil-rich Sunni Arab kleptocracy on the Gulf — with a long history of genocide, sponsorship of terror, and war with the United States — needed a long-overdue reckoning after 19 Sunni Arab terrorists slaughtered 3,000 Americans, were his enemies even crazier to agree that Iraq was indeed now the central front in radical Islam’s war against the infidel?

Other questions arise. If Obama long ago wanted to finish off the Afghan war, why doesn’t he do it now when Iraq is not the distraction that it was under Bush? Why, after a victory in Iraq, should we be discouraged, while radical Islam, coming off a defeat in Anbar Province, should be eager to escalate in Afghanistan? And if General Petraeus was right about the surge in Iraq, and candidate Obama, who wanted to clear the country of American combat forces by March 2008, was quite wrong (“the surge is not working”), then why would we assume that Petraeus is now wrong on Afghanistan and Obama right? After all, the former has been proven wise and consistent, and the latter wrong in the past and erratic in the present.

Americans want out of the recession and wish long-term problems of war, energy, and healthcare to be solved. They welcomed a young, charismatic president who seems eager to tackle these challenges head-on. The problem, however, is that they are not convinced that he understands the challenges, let alone that he offers the right solutions. In short, what Obama says seems pleasant to the ear, but an increasing number of Americans believe that his answers are not just unlikely, but perhaps not even possible.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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