Articles

Obama and the Politics of Condescension

October 05, 2011

t's no fun being a Democrat now. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn't have the Democratic votes to pass President Barack Obama's latest stimulus. In this week's Washington Post-ABC News poll, Mr. Obama's job approval hit a record low of 42%, and 55% of those polled believe a Republican will win the White House. As the public turns on the president and his party, they are turning on the public.

Take former Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, who recently wrote in the New Republic that "to solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions. . . . We might be a healthier democracy if we were a slightly less democratic one."

Not to be outdone, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue told the Cary Rotary Club that "we ought to suspend . . . elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make."

And Mr. Obama, who during the campaign expressed his disdain for average Americans at a fund-raiser in San Francisco that he thought was private, has now taken his criticism public. Last weekend, he told an Orlando television reporter that our country has "gotten a little soft."

This liberal lack of faith in the people is combined with a nearly boundless confidence in government, and it can be seen in issues large and small. Take taxes: Mr. Obama and his party want to substantially raise them. They trust government to spend that money more wisely than they do the people who earned it.

Their attitude about health care is similar, believing it would be efficient and cost-conscious if run by Washington bureaucrats rather than doctors and nurses and patients. A 15-member national board, not millions of consumers and providers, should set prices. And reforming Medicare by giving seniors a set sum to help purchase insurance is abhorrent. After all, that assumes older Americans are capable of making their own decisions when it's clear—at least to Mr. Obama and his crew—that they're not.

Similarly, the Obama administration has not been chastened by Solyandra's spectacular failure. Mr. Obama and his minions at the Department of Energy believe they're wise and prescient enough to pick the companies that will produce a green-energy nirvana. Forget markets: Leave it to a well-educated Ivy League elite to decide what's best for America's energy future.

The Democratic nanny-state vision even holds that parents can't be trusted with their kids' breakfast. In an effort funded by Mr. Obama's stimulus, "voluntary" guidelines will go into force by 2014 to prohibit the use of animated characters like Tony the Tiger to market breakfast cereals. Advertising restrictions will target even peanut butter and jelly.

This approach to governing is part and parcel of progressivism, a philosophy to which Mr. Obama subscribes. Modern liberalism has long argued for more centralized government. Why? Hoover Institution scholar Peter Berkowitz points out that Herbert Croly—cofounder of the New Republic magazine and a key figure in the progressive movement—advocated centralized governmental power because, as he wrote in "The Promise of American Life" (1909), "the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities." Sound familiar?

Free-market champions (from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman) and political leaders (including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) argued that collectivism is inherently inefficient, unaccountable and incompatible with self-government. While collectivists such as Mr. Obama may flatter themselves as omniscient, history has shown time and again that these elites lack the knowledge and imagination required to wisely allocate resources and make countless decisions. The way to improve the general level of prosperity is through free markets.

That's why next year's election will decide more than policy differences and who is president. It is a deeper, more important clash of principles. Do we place our trust in the federal government or the people? Political debates don't get much more basic than this.

Progressives have often disguised their true views and intentions. But as the political fortunes of Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party have collapsed, their veneer of respect for the America polity is being stripped away. This is good to know. My guess is 'round about November 2012 the American people will frame their reply to this liberal condescension.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, October 5, 2011.

 

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