The political world is a-twitter about the president's recent statements on the condition of the economy.
You know, the one where President Barack Obama said the private sector is "doing fine." Well, that one was not received in the way it was intended. In fact, it generated so much ridicule that a few hours later the president again took to the public stage in order to correct his initial assessment. The subsequent damage control statement did little to calm the political waters, however. But it did a lot to illuminate this president's state of mind regarding job creation and the private sector.
It was in the second media hit that the president reminded us of his true world view. To wit, that while there is hurt in the private sector, the real problems with our economy concern the austerity measures instituted by state and local governments over the past few years. In essence, the economy suffers because we don't have enough government in our lives. (And this despite a massive public sector spending binge pursuant to his stimulus bill.)
Such a non sequitur requires further investigation into the president's psyche.
That the president is an intelligent man is beyond dispute. That his life experiences are (almost) wholly outside the private sector is equally true. For those in doubt, recall the resume: college, law school, community organizer, law school lecturer, author, state senator, U.S. senator and president. Private sector experience is limited to a part-time associate's position at a Chicago law firm while a member of the Illinois legislature.
His youthful and early adulthood associations have been well reported — if not so well analyzed. These included relationships with the ultra progressive likes of poet Frank Marshall Davis, anti-war bombers William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, Harvard Law School professors Derrick Bell and Charles Ogletree, and the infamous Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In 2008, such associations gave rise to dire fears within GOP and conservative circles. But these concerns failed to play out much beyond the Republican right wing. Indeed, the last presidential campaign was about hope and change, not so much about questionable friendships and ideology.
Four years later, we have a more complete picture of the man, his philosophical approach, and value system.
To his credit, the president has shown a willingness to jettison campaign positions when national security is at issue. Witness the administration's turnaround on issues such as the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, civilian trials for enemy combatants, rendition of terror suspects, and escalation of the drone campaign in Afghanistan. And the world's most notorious terrorist was brought to justice on his watch. In these particular instances, the president has rejected his left leaning advisors — to the country's benefit.
With regard to economic initiatives, a clear and consistent picture emerges: the president is an instinctively progressive politician prone to flights of hyper-partisanship when he doesn't get his way. He advances federal preemption over states' rights and a large scale entitlement state. He possesses a European social democrat's disdain for market capitalism and its inegalitarian consequences. Most importantly, he has an intellectual knowledge but lacks a practical grasp of how jobs are generated in the private sector. And the foregoing statement about what's really wrong with the economy is a telling insight into how the president wishes the country (and economy) would operate.
The president's policy agenda is by now quite familiar: more Keynesian stimulus, more entitlement spending, more public sector jobs, and more taxes on the rich (and not so rich) to pay for it all.
So, after all the town hall debates, phone banks, mass emails and seemingly endless accusations and counter-charges, it all comes down to a rather fundamental difference of opinion: The president's egalitarian instincts lead to calls for greater government activism, the better to create a more equitable distribution of goods and services. Mitt Romney's market instincts lead to calls for less government intrusion, the better to create more opportunity for profit and economic growth.
These contrasting views of right and left are as old as the nation itself. But today's stakes are higher than normal. We have undergone a deep recession and tepid recovery. Our debt rating has been downgraded. Entitlement spending is out of control. The president has increased debt more than every president from George Washington through George H. W. Bush combined. And the American Dream's promise that you will live better than your parents is increasingly at risk.
America's middle class is nervous. That attitude typically spells "big problems" for an incumbent president. And I bet most taxpayers do not see additional deficit spending as the first (or best) remedy for what ails us.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics, and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.