July 11, 2010

Obama After 18 Months

After the American Century

It has only been eighteen months since George Bush left the White House, but already the American public seems to be suffering from amnesia. The American economy is not recovering quickly from its near collapse under Bush, and this weakness is nevertheless laid at Obama’s door. His popularity has fallen below 50% for some time now. The great bank bailout has been reasonably successful, with much of the money being paid back, yet many Americans talk about the bailout as though it was not a loan but a permanent part of the national debt. The re-regulation of Wall Street has gone through Congress, yet Republicans proclaim that Obama has now hobbled the capitalist horse. (For a reality check, consider the Canadian banks which did not need a bailout because they were restrained by sensible legislation.)

And then there is the endlessly repeated, and endlessly stupid, claim that the health care bill is socialistic. This would be silly if so many did not believe it. If Obama really had created a socialistic health care system then (1) he would have  given free medical care to all citizens and permanent residents, in exchange for higher taxes, (2) he would have put all doctors and nurses in public hospitals on the government payroll, and (3) prescription medicine would be free or heavily subsidized.  This is pretty much what the health care system looks like in Denmark, England, or Germany. But the Obama plan did not do any of these things. It made health care available to all, in exchange for payment to private insurers. It left hospitals under the same management as before, and so forth. The Obama plan is an improvement, but it is not much like a European plan.

My American readers might recall that they do have socialistic elements in their government, notably the fire departments which are paid for by everyone and put out all fires regardless of where they are or whose property it is. The theory seems to be that minimizing conflagrations is a good thing for the neighborhood. Free public libraries are also rather socialistic, though this did not stop that famous capitalist Andrew Carnegie from building quite a few of them. Then there are those terribly socialistic institutions, the free public schools, and so on.

Today’s column clearly has only that most general of subjects, the instability of American public opinion, which so often is based not on logic but pavlovian  responses to key words and silly phrases. The circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum  once said that no one ever went broke because he underestimated the American public. By November all too many Americans will be convinced that not Bush but Obama undermined the economy by over-spending the budget, letting the banks get out of control, and imposing a “socialistic health” care system. But it was Bush who cut taxes, especially for the wealthy and then overspent the budget by billions in the unfinanced wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was the Bush Administration that failed to keep a watchful eye on the banks and Wall Street, until the economy was near collapse before the 2008 election even took place.

In American political culture, eighteen months is a long time, and some seem to have trouble seeing cause and effect, or separating substance form allegation. It is not easy to be President in the best of times, and far harder than in the present. On the whole, Obama has done a good job. But Americans are an impatient people, and in the off year elections the party that lost the last time usually makes at least a partial comeback. We shall see.