Two recent articles on this site—one by Mark Steyn, the other by Luiza Ch. Savage—suggested Barack Obama is responsible for the rising tension and partisan polarization that led to the raucous Tea Parties and townhall meetings of the summer. Indeed, Obama has lost support since the late spring, particularly among independent voters and the elderly. The healthcare debate has been a factor, but it has also become increasingly clear an innate fear of big government has a lot to do with the unease since Obama’s inauguration. Still, to put the blame solely on Obama’s policies or, in the cases of Jimmy Carter and Maureen Down, on racism, is to deal in oversimplification.
We should not forget the situation Obama inherited last November. Lehman Brothers had just gone belly up and some of the most advanced industrial economies in the world were on the verge of collapse. As a result, even George W. Bush, the most devoted believer in the free market system since Ronald Reagan, found himself pouring billions in government money into the financial markets to stabilize them. The nationalization of GM and the bailouts that followed were not the products of Obama promises or policies; they were the result of unregulated markets in which greed overtook prudence, sound business policy, and good judgement. It is all too easy to forget that it was a conservative, free market ideology that went awry. Also forgotten is the fact that the largest deficits in history prior to 2008 occurred under Reagan and Bush 43. Say what you will about tax-and-spend liberals in the Democratic party—Clinton left a surplus at the end of his second term.
Faced with the prospect of a deep recession, the Obama administration adopted a stimulus package worth close to $800 billion and continued the TARP injections begun under the Bush administration. The Republicans, meanwhile, decided that cooperation was not a good political option. Instead, they have let fear mongering and the Birther movement dominate the opposition to Obama. While it is true that House Democrats like Nancy Pelosi have done little to temper the partisan rhetoric that existed before Obama took office, it is also true that Republicans have offered very little in the way of alternative policies. Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the Palin Republicans may like to blame it all on Obama and his administration, but the mess America is in today dates back to before he won office.
Americans are rightly concerned about the broader direction of their country. Just a decade ago, they were living in a time of unprecedented economic growth, unemployment was close to 5 per cent, and America was the undisputed superpower of the world. Though global tensions existed, Americans could not be faulted for feeling secure and confident about the future. A decade later and eight years after 9-11, Americans have become embroiled in two wars that are among the longest in their history and are seeing tensions with Iran approach a boiling point; the economy has suffered record bankruptcies and home losses; and unemployment is about to cross the 10 per cent threshold. In the meantime, healthcare has remained in dire need of fixing, with most Americans agreed that costs, coverage and access must all be addressed.
It should come as no surprise that Obama would choose to be an activist president, both in policy and in rhetoric. The model is more FDR than Hoover. Obama’s reforms go from healthcare to the environment to financial regulations and beyond. In implementing them, he has made a point of being ever-present in the media and of challenging the conventional policy wisdom in existence for over 25 years. Given all this, it is understandable that he would lose support in the process—Americans are always suspect of government solutions or encroachment. The rising deficit and the mounting debt has rightly brought fiscal conservatives out of the woodwork to contest Obama’s policies and raise the spectre of inflation and unemployment emerging simultaneously. This is a healthy and legitimate debate. But to blame the current state of affairs in America, where debate is as polarized as ever, primarily on Obama is exaggerated, inaccurate and misleading.