WASHINGTON — A president’s first midterm election is inevitably a referendum on his two years in office. The bad news for Democrats is that President Obama’s “re-elect” number is 38 percent — precisely Bill Clinton’s in October 1994, the eve of the wave election that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Yet this same poll found that 65 percent view Obama favorably “as a person.” The current Democratic crisis is not about the man — his alleged lack of empathy, ability to emote, etc., requiring remediation with backyard, shirt-sleeved shoulder rubbing with the folks — but about the policies.
And the problem with the policies is twofold: ideology and effectiveness. First, Obama, abetted by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, tried to take a center-right country to the left. They grossly misread the 2008 election. It was a mandate to fix the economy and restore American confidence. Obama read it as a mandate to change the American social contract, giving it a more European social-democratic stamp, by fundamentally extending the reach and power of government in health care, energy, education, finance and industrial policy.
Obama succeeded with health care. Unfortunately for the Democrats, that and Obama’s other signature achievement — the stimulus — were not exactly what the folks were clamoring for. What they wanted was economic recovery.
Here the Democrats failed the simple test of effectiveness. The economy is extraordinarily weak, unemployment is unacceptably high and the only sure consequence of the stimulus is nearly $1 trillion added to the national debt in a single stroke.
And yet, to these , the Democrats have managed in the last few weeks to add a third indictment: incompetence.
For the first time since modern budgeting was introduced with the Budget Act of 1974, the House failed to even write a budget. This in a year of extraordinary deficits, rising uncertainty and jittery financial markets. Gold is going through the roof. Confidence in the dollar and the American economy is falling — largely because of massive overhanging debt. Yet no budget emerged from Congress to give guidance, let alone reassurance, about future U.S. revenues and spending.
That’s not all. Congress has not passed a single appropriations bill. To keep the government going, Congress passed a so-called continuing resolution (CR) before adjourning to campaign. The problem with continuing to spend at the current level is that the last two years have seen a huge 28 percent jump in non-defense discretionary spending. The CR continues this profligacy, aggravating an already serious debt problem.
As if this was not enough, Congress then adjourned without even a vote — nay, without even a Democratic bill — on the expiring Bush tax cuts. This is the ultimate in incompetence. After 20 months of control of the White House and Congress — during which they passed an elaborate, 1,000-page micromanagement of every detail of American health care — the Democrats adjourned without being able to tell the country what its tax rates will be on Jan. 1.
It’s not just income taxes. It’s capital gains and dividends too. And the estate tax, which will careen insanely from 0 to 55 percent when the ball drops on Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Nor is this harmless incompetence. To do this at a time when $2 trillion of capital is sitting on the sidelines because of rising uncertainty — and there is no greater uncertainty than next year’s tax rates — is staggeringly irresponsible.
As if this display of unseriousness — no budget, no appropriations bill, no tax bill — was not enough, some genius on a House Judiciary subcommittee invites parodist Stephen Colbert to testify as an expert witness on immigration. He then pulls off a nervy mockery of the whole proceedings — my favorite was his request to have his colonoscopy inserted in the Congressional Record — while the chairwoman sits there clueless.
A fitting end for the 111th Congress. But not quite. Colbert will return to the scene of the crime on Oct. 30 as the leader of one of two mock rallies on the National Mall. Comedian Jon Stewart leads the other. At a time of near-10 percent unemployment, a difficult and draining war abroad, and widespread disgust with government overreach and incompetence, they will light up the TV screens as the hip face of the new liberalism — just three days before the election.
I suspect the electorate will declare itself not amused.