It’s not an accident that in the past few weeks, President Barack Obama’s campaign has spent a lot of time talking about bizarre trivia such as Mitt Romney’s plans for Big Bird.
Obama can’t run on the attractive new initiatives he intends to pursue in his second term: He doesn’t have any. He can’t run on his major legislative accomplishments, either. The stimulus and the healthcare overhaul are both unpopular – and for good reason.
Judged on his record, the president deserves to lose re-election.
It has been ages since prominent Democrats used the word “stimulus.” Instead what they say is that the president pulled the country back from the brink of another Great Depression. They don’t mention that he won this alleged victory by spending hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars.
And saying the stimulus saved us from a depression simply isn’t true. The economy hit bottom in June 2009, too early for a bill signed four months before to have had much effect. Studies that claim the bill had a strongly positive effect on the economy fall into two categories. Some of them simply assume, rather than prove, that stimulus had to work. The others suggest that some places did well from the stimulus, but they don’t prove it helped the country as a whole. None of them takes account of the Federal Reserve’s power to set the economy’s speed limit.
Obama treated his most powerful economic lever with indifference, leaving seats on the Fed vacant for two years even when his allies had a large majority of the Senate. Monetary ease – allowing nominal spending to increase substantially – would have given the United States faster economic growth. Instead, fiscal stimulus gave us more federal debt.
Democrats are even more circumspect about the health care bill, touting some of its incidental features: The requirement that insurers let young adults stay on their parents’ insurance plans, for example. Or the requirement that almost all employers cover contraception, whatever their own moral views about it, a provision so tangential to the law that it isn’t even spelled out in the 2,700-page document.
It’s true that the bill should extend insurance to millions of people who don’t now have it. That extension should relieve their financial anxiety (although it is surprisingly hard to find evidence that Medicaid coverage improves people’s health). The downsides are huge, though: Higher federal spending, new taxes on life-saving medical devices, a vast grant of discretionary authority to the executive branch, and subsidies designed in a way that punishes lower-middle-class people climbing the economic ladder.
It didn’t have to be that way. We could and should have increased coverage with a much less government-centered law. We could, that is, have changed tax and regulatory policies to foster the growth of a national market in individually purchased insurance, while creating well-funded risk pools to cover people with pre-existing conditions. That approach would have cost much less and ceded less power to bureaucrats. Obama says the law cuts “wasteful” Medicare spending, which is certainly necessary. All it does, though, is pursue strategies (tighter price controls, government-funded research on effective practices, pilot programs) that have failed for decades.
And that’s the best thing Obama has done on entitlements – indeed, the only thing he has done or even proposed while in office. He has been trashing promising ideas such as improving Medicare’s efficiency by letting insurers compete for beneficiaries’ dollars, even though many Democrats have supported that approach. Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal for addressing the country’s long-term debt challenge has its flaws. But to attack it while advancing no alternative, as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner admits the administration has done, is to abdicate leadership.
Still, it’s remarkable to watch a president run for re-election without discussing either his plans for the future or the main elements of his record. The stimulus and the health-care bill are two of Obama’s most consequential policies, and the U.S. could be paying for them for a very long time. They are only footnotes to Obama’s campaign. They ought to be his political epitaph.
• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.