Hey, Big Spender

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
What a shock! Obama is who he said he was.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell famously asserted, “needs a constant struggle.”

Congratulations to three journalists who have finally taken up that constant struggle: Christopher Buckley, David Gergen, and David Brooks. All three used to insist that Barack Obama was some species of centrist or moderate. Now that the president has proposed the most massive expansion of government in the history of the Republic, each has recognized that just conceivably he might have been mistaken.

A humorist—and, I should disclose, an old friend—Christopher Buckley exercised his acute comic sense during the presidential campaign, judging John McCain so thoroughly risible that the nation could hardly do worse by electing Barack Obama. Now Buckley has developed a sense of the tragic. In electing Obama, he admits, we may indeed have done worse—a lot worse.

“The strange thing,” Buckley wrote March 1 after listening to Obama address Congress, “is that one feels almost unpatriotic, entertaining negative thoughts about Mr. Obama’s grand plan. . . . One thing is certain, however: government is getting bigger and will stay bigger. Just remember . . . that a government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away.”

“Just remember”? Coming from someone who just remembered, the exhortation might strike a lot of people as rich. But never mind.

Now a commentator for CNN, David Gergen served in a number of administrations, first working in the White House all the way back in the 1970s. To the extent that he possesses any coherent ideological outlook— a fine question to ask of someone who accepted jobs from both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—Gergen seems to share Alexander Hamilton’s view that the federal government requires, as Hamilton expressed it, “energy in the executive.”

During the campaign, Gergen praised Obama as a man of action. Now Gergen argues that Obama is displaying a little too much action.

What a shock! Obama is who he said he was.

“We are in the midst of a global crisis . . . that demands intense focus and daily leadership by the president,” Gergen wrote recently. But Obama’s “ambition for reforms in other areas do not allow him to give the economy his full attention.” The financial industry is reeling, Gergen asserted, “because there is still no clear-cut set of policies about how the government will rescue banks.”

Energy in the executive is one matter. Zealotry in the executive is another.

Rush Limbaugh and Thomas Sowell both got Obama right from the very get-go. It was the elite journalists who got him wrong.

Two personalities inhabit New York Times columnist David Brooks, who, like Christopher Buckley, is a friend. One personality is that of the idealist. On Inauguration Day, the idealist in Brooks claimed that Barack Obama was “a pragmatist, an empiricist” who intended “to realize the endof- ideology politics.” The other personality inhabiting Brooks is that of the realist. It takes a lot to rouse the realist. Trillions of dollars, in fact.

“There is evidence,„ Brooks wrote in early March about Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget, “of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor. . . . We end up with deficits that are $1 trillion a year and stretch as far as the eye can see. . . . Federal spending as a share of GDP is zooming from its modern norm of 20 percent to an unacknowledged level somewhere far beyond.

“Those of us who consider ourselves moderates—moderate-conservative, in my case—are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was.”

A couple of implications are worth noting. The first is that a deep, recurring pattern of American life has asserted itself yet again: the cluelessness of the elite.

Buckley, Gergen, and Brooks all attended expensive private universities, then spent their careers moving among the wealthy and powerful who inhabit the seaboard corridor running from Washington to Boston. If any of the three strolled uninvited into a cocktail party in Georgetown, Cambridge, or New Haven, the hostess would emit yelps of delight. Yet all three originally got Obama wrong.

Contrast Buckley, Gergen, and Brooks with, let us say, Rush Limbaugh, whose appearance at any chic cocktail party would cause the hostess to faint dead away, or with Thomas Sowell, who occupies probably the most unfashionable position in the country, that of a black conservative.

Limbaugh and Sowell both got Obama right from the very get-go. “Just what evidence do you have,” Sowell replied when I asked, shortly before the election, whether he considered Obama a centrist, “that he’s anything but a hard-left ideologue?”

David Gergen once praised Obama as a man of action. Now Gergen argues that Obama is displaying a little too much action.

The elite journalists, I repeat, got Obama wrong. The troglodytes got him right. As our national drama continues to unfold, bear that in mind.

The second implication? That there remains at least a small chance Congress will dig in its heels against Obama’s more profligate spending.

If even Christopher Buckley, David Gergen, and David Brooks can see what is in front of their noses, one may hope.