Candidate Barack Obama won the White House by campaigning on a theme of "hope." If he really wants to do the nation a great service, President Obama will start governing on a theme of "nope."
Everybody seems either angry with or disappointed in the president. Conservatives never liked Mr. Obama and appreciate him now only insofar as he can be used as a political foil to raise money or attract votes. Many liberals, once overjoyed by his election, today consider him a sell-out. Only in America can the right-wing and left-wing elements of the populace be convinced that the president is simultaneously a socialist and a corporate tool.
The real puzzle is why moderates aren't delighted. Centrists have been complaining for years that the extreme right and liberal left have respectively taken hostage of the Republican and Democratic parties, sentencing America to radical swings between the myopic undermining of government to the myopic overreaching by it. Shouldn't a president who has infuriated both his most ardent liberal and conservative critics be championed by moderates and the media as a political Man for All Seasons?
The real problem is that American voters want, well, everything. They don't want their taxes raised or benefits cut, but they want government to rein in deficit spending. Every entitled group can point to some other group's benefits to cut or taxes to raise, but elsewhere in the political system another group is pointing fingers back at them. We have met the fiscal enemy, and it is us.
Main Street, after all, is no more fiscally responsible than Capitol Hill. Millions of American consumers bought homes, cars and consumer goods they couldn't afford. Do we really expect voters who rarely tell themselves "no" to elect politicians who will?
The president can establish special commissions. But Washington spends recklessly because voters reward politicians who respond to their demands. And mark my words: The new crop of 2010 winners who beat incumbents by promising fiscal responsibility will be no more honest or courageous about America's short- or long-term fiscal situation because, in the end, they serve at the pleasure of the same voters who elected their predecessors.
Meanwhile, notice that President Obama's first major policy response to the "shellacking" he and fellow Democrats took in last month's midterms was to impose a two-year federal employee pay freeze. It will save an estimated $60 billion over 10 years, which is better than nothing. From a budget of more than $3 trillion, however, these savings are largely symbolic. Conservatives tout earmark reform as a solution, but eliminating every one of these pet projects would put only the smallest dent in the deficit.
America has become a nation that shifts the blame when times are tough and ignores big problems when times are good. Lashing out at federal employees and complaining about the "Cornhusker kickback" may feel good, but these are unserious solutions.
What comes next? Tax cuts, of course, including for those who least need them and will do the least with their windfall to stimulate the economy. An analysis by the Center on Budget Priorities and Policy of Congressional Budget Office estimates shows that by 2013, the Bush-era tax cuts, if left in place, will account for more of the structural federal deficit than the spending on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the stimulus package and the bailouts — combined. Yes, you read that correctly: combined.
If the president wants to show courage, he should return to the theme espoused in his inaugural address, when he called for a government to "set aside childish things" and act like sensible, responsible adults. He should stand firm against tax cuts for the wealthiest and least needy and force Republicans to make the case for why those struggling financially through this recession ought to endure future tax increases, debts and interest in order to subsidize tax breaks today for the very class of Americans who benefitted the most from government policies during the past 30 years. And when conservatives complain that Mr. Obama is engaging in "class warfare," the president ought to say, "You're damn right I am, and I'm fighting for the classes that have been getting crushed for far too long."
"Hope" is nice, but it won't balance the public checkbook, help the middle class, or turn this economy around. A heavy dose of "nope" from President Obama is long overdue.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is email@example.com.