After a strange and divisive election season, November 8 is almost here—and it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Whoever wins will be in an unenviable position. The nation is in free-fall: current foreign policy, the economy, health care, and federal borrowing are not sustainable. Yet the needed chemotherapy, in the short-term, will have more excruciating side-effects than the pain of the growing cancer itself—ensuring that the next president will be hated as a cruel oncologist by his suffering patients, the public.
Take health care. Nothing President Obama promised about the Affordable Care Act ever came true—if indeed such assurances were ever intended to come true. Premiums did not fall by $2,500. In fact, they rose on average by $4,800. We did not necessarily keep our plans or our doctors. The ACA certainly did not lower the deficit—another one of Obama’s pledges.
The administration announced that Obamacare costs will climb even higher in 2017, perhaps by 25%. Health insurers once rushed into the market on crony-capitalist promises that the government would green-light their price hikes in a closed and monopolized market. But even they are now disabused and leaving in droves.
In a nutshell, millions of Americans, who had custom-tailored plans, were forced into following regulations and paying for services they rarely, if at all, used—to ensure that others, who could not pay for them, had such choices. Whereas the former insured were used to paying their premiums on time, and understood the principles of deductibles and copayments, the newly insured often did not.
Or as a physician recently summed up the mess to me, “An Obamacare card is often an empty pledge with no guarantee the holder has paid or intends to pay anything, and the result is that I increased my patient load by 25% and cut my time with each patient by 20% to make up for what I cannot charge or don’t get paid for.” For the more affluent, the legacy of Obamacare is becoming concierge medicine in which millions will rarely use their health plan and instead negotiate to pay cash to see an on-call doctor of their choice. For the less well off, the promise of “universal insurance” under Obamacare means that only those who qualify for subsidies can afford to use it; many do not have the cash to pay the deductibles and so will avoid going to the doctor altogether.
The next president will have to tear up Obamacare and start over. And the result will not be pretty.
That’s not all. The incoming president will face a $20 trillion or greater national debt, one that has doubled since 2008, when candidate Obama trashed George Bush for running up massive debt. Indeed, on an earlier occasion in 2006, the supposedly frugal Senator Obama voted to shut down the entire government, in Tea Party fashion, to stop a hike in the debt ceiling. But as president, Obama borrowed more money than all prior presidents combined.
Worse, Obama warped the old Newt Gingrich/Bill Clinton debt reduction calculus of freezing domestic and defense spending, while raising taxes, which led to a balanced budget in 1998. Instead, Obama slashed defense and raised taxes, but still ran up $500 billion in annual deficits—and declared it frugality after his more normal series of $1 trillion deficits. And he offered no long-range plan of how to balance the budget. He formed the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010 and then ignored its unpalatable findings as inconsistent with a successful reelection campaign in 2012.
Obama hopes to leave office without a major financial collapse akin to 2008. But he has bequeathed a lose/lose proposition to his successor: raise interest rates—and debt service crowds out much of the budget; or keep interest rates low and pile up debt, while the economy continues its slow-growth trajectory into insolvency.
The next president will likely have to cut spending, raise taxes, and hope that doesn’t precipitate a catastrophic recession or rampant 1970s-style inflation—or both. In the meantime, the near-zero interest rates of the last eight years destroyed the American ideal of thrift (as well as redistributed trillions of dollars from savers to borrowers)—given that putting money in a savings account is tantamount to ensuring it loses its purchasing power. The idea that the U.S. economy would again hit 4% in annual GDP growth would require the sort of structural changes that might make the medicine of reform more unpopular than the current disease of slow growth and chronic borrowing.
Obama entered office in 2008 with promises of ending racial animosity. Instead, he chose to stoke an us/them mentality to ensure his reelection, always pitting a coalition of victimized minorities against a shrinking and culpable white privileged majority. The Professor Gates melodrama, the call for Latinos to punish their enemies at the polls, the politicization of the Trayvon Martin shooting trial, and the opportunistic commentary on the Ferguson and Baltimore riots only reified Obama’s early racialist polarization—which was evident in Dreams from My Father, during his two-decade apprenticeship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his “typical white person” and “clingers” campaign speeches.
The result is that race relations have not been been this strained since the 1960s urban riots. Race now permeates even the most unexpected facets of American life: multimillionaire athletes refuse to stand for the National Anthem, arguing their racist country is not worth veneration; multimillionaire Hollywood actors and actresses adjudicate Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy awards as fair or unfair on the basis of proportional racial representation. Multimillionaire rappers—many of them White House visitors—call for violence against the police in their lyrics or adorn their album covers with pictures of black gangbangers toasting the corpse of a white judge on the White House lawn.
Yet in terms of family income and employment, the African-American middle and lower-middle classes are faring poorly under Obama. The next president will face an existential dilemma. Can the United States remain the only country in history to be truly multiracial without segregating into enclaves and without serial racial rioting and violence? Will renewed calls for integration, assimilation, and tolerance be seen as too little too late?
Abroad, President Obama is leaving behind a new world in which the United States has lost the ability to deter enemies and ceded influence to regional and often hostile hegemonies. China is recreating the wartime Japanese East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Vladimir Putin is incrementally reassembling the republics and buffer zones of the old Soviet Union. Iran, empowered by both its new Hezbollah/Syria/Russia axis and the appeasement of the U.S.-brokered Iran deal, is seeking to adjudicate who enters and leaves the Persian Gulf, and for what reasons.
Radical Islam has left much of Libya and the Iraq/Syria borderlands a wasteland after the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and our lead-from-behind bewilderment in Libya. Millions of migrants from these war zones have entered Europe, the vast majority of them young, male, Muslim, and unvetted.
Given radical defense cuts and criticism of past American leadership, the United States is increasingly not in the position of reassuring its former allies that it can help to defend them from Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or Islamic aggression. Sometimes it is unsure whether old allies like Israel, the Philippines, or Turkey are really allies at all any more. The next president may well be facing even more regional wars. To keep the peace, he or she will have to restore U.S. credibility and deterrence—a far harder task than losing both after Obama’s pseudo red-, dead-, and step-over lines.
Another problem the new president will face is corruption. Under the Obama administration, malfeasance has now warped the most sacrosanct and once unimpeachable agencies, well beyond the State and Justice Departments. Americans, after the Lois Lerner’s Fifth Amendment plea, have lost confidence in the Internal Revenue Service, vital for a system of self-tax reporting. During the Hillary Clinton email investigations, FBI Director James Comey did to the once-venerable FBI what Lerner had done to the IRS—allowed politics to warp policy as he handed out immunities to Clinton officials and ignored to draw the logical conclusions from the data of his own investigations. The result is that no one believes that either the FBI or IRS runs disinterested investigations of the powerful. The VA, the Secret Service, the GSA, ICE, and the EPA are either guilty of not enforcing current laws and statues, of becoming utterly incompetent, or of freelancing without legislative oversight—or of all three combined. The common denominator is the belief that government does not serve the citizenry, but serves the wishes of the chief executive.
Every president argues that he “inherited a mess.” And they often do. Gerald Ford in 1974 came into office with a post-Watergate hangover and a rekindling of war in Vietnam. Jimmy Carter dealt with the blowback from the Ford-Nixon pardon and rampant inflation. Ronald Reagan faced stagflation, oil embargoes, a Carter foreign policy in ruins, an ascendant Soviet Union, and a revolutionary and hostage-taking Iran. George W. Bush dealt with the loss of U.S. deterrence against Osama bin Laden and a recession.
In this vein, Obama argued that he inherited a catastrophic war in Iraq and a ruined economy. Not quite. Fracking and horizontal drilling came despite, not because of, his efforts and gave Obama a trillion-dollar stimulus of record low energy prices and near energy self-sufficiency. When he entered office, Iraq was not just quiet, but won, so much so that both Obama and Vice President Biden at various times would claim Iraq as their own—their “greatest achievement” as well as “sovereign,” “stable,” and “self-reliant.” Obama entered office four months after the September 2008 economic downturn, at a time when markets were stabilizing, the TARP bailouts were in place, and talk of a meltdown had largely ended.
The next president will be facing economic stagnation, record debt, racial division, looming large and ongoing small wars abroad, and a health care system in ruins. Common to all these problems is that tough solutions—fiscal discipline, recalibrating the tax code, restoration of deterrence, and a new health insurance model—will be as controversial and painful as is the current unsustainable slide into chaos.
Currently, President Obama envisions his last four months in office as running out his fourth quarter clock. By removing himself from visible leadership this summer, Obama had mostly stopped commenting on matters of race, the economy, foreign affairs, and Obamacare. He learned once again that the more he stayed on the golf course, vacationed at Martha’s Vineyard, or entertained celebrities at the White House, the more Americans did not see or hear their President, and thus the more they liked the idea, rather than the reality, of him as president. And when two unattractive presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump filled the ensuing media void, President Obama’s approval numbers returned to 50%.
Obama plans to coast through to January 2017, running the presidency as a public relations office—in hopes that the flammable detritus of his ideologically driven policies will not ignite until his predecessor is in office. Pity whoever that may be.