Famously smart, Obama was stupid about economy

President Obama came into office believing that in order to achieve two of the hearts' desires of his electoral base — universal health care and global warming legislation — he would have to act while his political capital was at its highest point.

Now, a year after his election, the president finds himself lugging two divisive initiatives and facing simmering outrage over the stagnant economy.

Exit polls from this week's contests in Virginia and New Jersey show health care with half the level of concern among voters as economic issues. Carbon emissions didn't even produce a BTU's worth of interest.

This is not a time to be selling plans that idealistic Americans support despite a belief that they damage the economy. Charity comes after subsistence.

It makes sense, then, that the president is increasingly likely to excuse himself from the global climate summit in Copenhagen next month. He lacks anything to offer his fellow heads of state but year-old campaign boilerplate.

One can easily see him sliding past the global warming gathering on his way to Oslo to grab his Nobel Prize on Dec. 10 and then cruising back home. Maybe he can send all his colleagues iPods pre-loaded with his speeches like the one he gave Queen Elizabeth II.

At about the same time, health care legislation will be crashing into the president's latest deadline.

Once moderate Democrats in Congress put the maximum allowable distance between themselves and the plan, anything that might pass would get the same reception that the Obama administration has been getting of late — unsatisfying to liberals and infuriating to conservatives.

And among moderates, the news could be even worse. If a health plan were to pass that was even half as destructive to the job market as the one House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proposed, an already anxious electorate would turn furious.

Just as the president may have to wait until next year to try to stop the oceans' rise, he may also have to wait until then for his final effort to provide health care to all.

You don't have to be Michael Barone to know that proposing a payroll tax and an energy tax in an election year would be political suicide. If delayed until 2010, the president's agenda might never materialize at all.

Voters in Virginia and New Jersey weren't voting in referenda on Obama, but he cast a shadow in both races. Democrats fielded weak candidates in both races and independent voters did not heed Obama's call to “keep it going.”

In Virginia, a state already comfortable with the GOP, independents swamped Creigh Deeds and his wedge-issue campaign. Republican Bob McDonnell carried 62 percent of independents in exit polls.

In New Jersey, where Republicanism acts more as an electoral escape hatch for frustrated voters, 58 percent of independents went for Chris Christie. The president appeared at five events for Jon Corzine and turned the formidable Obama political team from 2008 loose in the Garden State. Corzine only bagged 31 percent of the independent vote.

You don't want to waste a good crisis, but you have to make sure you actually solve the crisis if you want the strategy to work.

If after being swept into office, Ronald Reagan had declared that he was going to abolish the Department of Education and roll back Social Security, there would have been plenty of happy conservatives.

But Reagan knew that in desperate economic times his best chance for applying conservative principles was in the area of freeing the productive potential of an entrepreneurial nation.

He succeeded and, in the process, moved the entire argument away from picking the right regulations to deregulate.

Reagan built consensus behind economic issues and saved the rest of his agenda — except for the start of his military buildup — for another day. Reagan didn't do all that conservatives wanted, but he remade the American system to be more open to their ideas.

Obama had the same chance. Americans would have gladly followed him into a Social Democratic phase if he had begun with another New Deal.

Obama could have pushed jobs programs, free career training, a pork-free stimulus, more government jobs, etc. But instead, Obama said he wanted to fix the economy, and cap carbon, and impose a new health care bureaucracy.

The question he faces now is whether he has enough time to drop the dead weight and convince Americans that he has his priorities right.

Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at cstirewalt@dcexaminer.com.

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