Those Who Can't, Govern
National Review's Happy Warrior
For much of last year, a standard trope of President Obama's speechwriters was that there were certain things only government could do. "That's how we built this country — together," he declared. "We constructed railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. We did those things together." As some of us pointed out, for the cost of Obama's 2009 stimulus bill alone, you could have built 1,567 Golden Gate Bridges — or one mega–Golden Gate Bridge stretching from Boston to just off the coast of Ireland. Yet there isn't a single bridge, or a single dam ("You will never see another federal dam," his assistant secretary of the interior assured an audience of environmentalists). Across the land, there was not a thing for doting network correspondents in hard hats to stand in front of and say, "Obama built this."
Until now, that is. Obamacare is as close to a Hoover Dam as latter-day Big Government gets. Which is why its catastrophic launch is sobering even for those of us who've been saying for five years it would be a disaster. It's as if at the ribbon-cutting the Hoover Dam cracked open and washed away the dignitaries; as if the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to traffic with its central span missing; as if Apollo 11 had taken off for the moon but landed on Newfoundland. Obama didn't have to build a dam or a bridge or a spaceship, just a database and a website. This is his world, the guys he hangs with, the zeitgeist he surfs so dazzlingly, Apple and Google, apps and downloads. But his website's a sclerotic dump, and the database is a hacker's heaven, and all that's left is the remorseless snail mail of millions and millions of cancellation letters.
For the last half-century, Obama has simply had to be. Just being Obama was enough to waft him onwards and upwards: He was the Harvard Law Review president who never published a word, the community organizer who never organized a thing, the state legislator who voted present. And then one day came the day when it wasn't enough simply to be. For the first time in his life, he had to do. And it turns out he can't. He's not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. And Healthcare.gov is about what you'd expect if you nationalized a sixth of the economy and gave it to the Assistant Deputy Commissar of the Department of Paperwork and the Under-Regulator-General of the Bureau of Compliance.
Politics, the late Christopher Hitchens used to say, is show business for ugly people. But it's also ugly business for show people. Thatcherism is a political philosophy; Obamaism is a vibe, a groove, a pose, an aesthetic. When his speechwriters are cooking, he'll get them to work up a little riff about how it's not about Big Government vs. Small Government, it's about "smarter" government. A few months ago, he even gave it a hashtag! #SmarterGov. How cool is that? "Smart" refers less to the product than to the guys pitching it. "He's probably the smartest guy ever to become president," said the historian Michael Beschloss the day after Obama's election. In an embarrassing effusion even by his own standards, another smart guy, the New York Times' house conservative David Brooks, noted the incoming administration's narrow range of almae matres and cooed: "If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard–Yale game anytime over the next four years, we're screwed." Obama and his courtiers were the smartest guys in town, so naturally their government would be smarter than all previous governments. A few weeks before Obamacare's launch, one of the smart set, Dan Pfeiffer, promised it would be "a consumer experience unmatched by anything in government, but also in the private sector." And he was right, kind of.
What does Dan Pfeiffer know of this thing called "the private sector"? To say there is less private-sector experience in the Obama administration than in any other of the last century hardly begins to convey the particular pool of smarts on which this president has drawn. Nearly 60 percent of Eisenhower's cabinet appointments had private-sector experience; Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes scored well over 50; FDR and Truman smack on 50/50; in Obama's cabinet, fewer than 10 percent have real-world business experience. None of Obamacare's begetters have ever created anything — certainly not a dime of real wealth.
Instead, we have government by people who read Thomas L. Friedman and use words like "interconnectedness" and give commencement addresses where they rave about how our world is changing so fast — and assume that just being glibly au courant is a substitute for being able to do, make, build. There are lessons here beyond the abysmal failure of one misconceived government program, lessons about what our esteemed (if not terminally self-esteemed) elites value as "smart," and about the perils of rule by a poseur technocracy. As for Obama, he's not Jay-Z, nor even Justin Bieber: He can't sing, or dance, or create a government bureaucracy that functions any more efficiently than a Soviet supermarket. He broke the lifelong rule that had served him so well — "Don't just do something. Stand there" — and for the first time in his life did something, terribly. It will bear his name forever.