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Did Obama Mislead The Country Into Electing Him?

In the Weekly Standard, Peter Berkowitz argues that President Obama “deliberately obscured the principles and policies according to which he intended to govern.” Obama ran as a moderate, and he’s governing as a wild liberal. Okay, it’s a familiar GOP talking point, but the lengths to which Berkowitz goes to prove it are unusually hilarious.

In a nutshell, Berkowitz insists that Obama ran for president by claiming that he respected the market and didn’t think conservatives were always wrong about everything. Yet he has supposedly betrayed all this in the following ways:

[P]lenty of competent observers were flabbergasted shortly after he took office when, notwithstanding an economic crisis that he himself declared the worst since the Great Depression, he called for and signed into law a $787 billion stimulus package short on stimulus spending, high on transfer payments, and larded with pork aimed at pet Democratic party special interests; rolled out a 2010 budget that, according to Congressional Budget Office projections, would quadruple the 2008 Bush deficit that candidate Obama had decried as intolerable; and announced his determination to pass comprehensive health care reform before year's end although the flaws in the current health care system had nothing to do with the toxic assets and frozen credit markets afflicting the economy.

There are three counts to the charge of bait-and-switch. First, Berkowitz argues that, “notwithstanding” the economic crisis, Obama proposed a major economic stimulus. I’m not sure what to say here. It’s true that Obama did not campaign promising a giant economic stimulus. But that’s because his campaign, like most of us, did not realize that we were on the cusp of a giant recession that by January would appear to be the worst crisis since the Great Depression. It’s as if somebody wrote in 2002, “notwithstanding the first domestic attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, President Bush decided to invade Afghanistan.”

Perhaps Berkowitz thinks that mainstream economics is wrong to support fiscal stimulus in the face of a massive collapse of demand. Perhaps he also believes that the Obama administration is actually filled with neo-classical economists who scoff at Keynes, and thus shares his skepticism about stimulus. And perhaps he further believes that these neoclassicists prevailed upon Obama to pass a massive spending plan anyway, under the guise of stimulus, because they’re the very rare kind of neoclassical economists who are driven above all by a desire to advance the Democratic agenda. If so, Berkowitz should really present some evidence for this belief.

The second count of the indictment is that Obama presented a budget that would quadruple the Bush deficit. There are actually two ways to interpret what Berkowitz is saying. The first is that Obama would increase the short-term budget with his stimulus plan. That’s true, though it’s exactly the same charge as the first, so this would represent a pretty obvious effort at padding by Berkowitz. The second is that he’s accusing Obama of running up a larger long-run deficit than Bush ran. This is false – the skyrocketing long-term deficit is more than 100% the responsibility of policies Obama inherited. As I’ve pointed out before, according to CBO data, Obama’s policies would slightly improve the long-term budget picture:

This brings us to count number #3: Obama is trying to enact his health care plan even though it has “nothing to do with the toxic assets and frozen credit markets afflicting the economy.” Immediately a contradiction presents itself. In charge #1, Berkowitz accuses Obama of deviating from his campaign platform to respond to world events. In charge #3, he accuses him of failing to deviate from his campaign platform. (He also seems to be under the belief that frozen credit markets and toxic assets remain the primary impediments to economic growth. Someone at the Hoover Institution needs to either stop stealing Berkowitz’s newspaper or else teach him how to access news on the internet.)

Berkowitz concedes that Obama mentioned something about health care in his acceptance speech in Denver, but misled America by also mentioning his support for things like opportunity and hard work:

Hinting at the scope of his progressive ambitions, he declared that "now is not the time for small plans." But his promise of "affordable, accessible health care for every single American" was not accompanied by any mention of the massive government intervention in the economy that he has sought to deliver. By keeping his big plans for health care brief and vague and embedding them in a speech that celebrated individual freedom, hard work, personal sacrifice, and the opportunity, entrepreneurship, innovation, and growth that free markets bring, Obama, moreover, encouraged a rapt nation to think that any big plan for health care reform that he might back would give the market its due and reflect bipartisan ideas and support.

It is true that Obama, who released a detailed health care plan during the campaign, did not use his most high-profile speeches to lay out the details of his plan. Berkowitz sees a stark contrast here with Ronald Reagan, who used his acceptance speech to lay out the thrust of his tax plan:

In July 1980, in his acceptance address to the Republican National Convention, Reagan declared that limiting government to preserve individual freedom was his paramount domestic goal, and he repeated his campaign promise to achieve it by passing "a 30 percent reduction in income tax rates."

Actually, Obama used his Denver speech to promise to extend coverage to all Americans, offer a public plan to compete with private insurance, and regulate insurance companies to prevent discriminating against those who are already sick. These are the three main elements of the plan he is pushing for today. You could argue that this fails to capture the nuances of his plan as well as Reagan’s promise to cut rates by 30%. But in fact Reagan’s tax plan turned out to be immensely complicated, incorporating vast cuts in corporate taxation and other changes that he did not campaign on. That’s what happens when simple ideas have to go through Congress.

So all that remains of Berkowitz’s complaint is the fact that Reagan employed anti-government rhetoric, while Obama declared himself in favor of entrepreneurship and the like. Is it possible that Obama really believes that his health care plan is perfectly consistent with individual freedom and would not destroy the free market?

--Jonathan Chait