We are now well into the season generally known as the summer doldrums, made more profound and dispiriting this year by the prolonged ineffectiveness of the political system, other than as an agent of sluggishly induced deterioration in public confidence and in the economic strength and international prestige of America. As a constructive thing only, let us focus on two aspects of this — first, the continued addiction of the president to distracting the country with perceptions that are mistaken, probably mendacious, and disserve such interest as there might otherwise be in bootstrapping the United States out of its profound torpor; and second, the failure of anyone I am aware of to recognize the need for a serious reorientation of the economy of the West in a way that only the operation of the free market, though not completely unfettered, can produce.
President Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 from Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that Senator Clinton won the primaries, because he rounded up the superdelegates (appointed, rather than elected, delegates), and then the entire country, with the argument that he was the first plausible leader of the African-American community since Martin Luther King Jr. (though General Colin L. Powell could have occupied that role had he wished it), that the time for a non-white president had come, and, more subtly, that conscientious American whites who felt embarrassment, or even guilt or shame, at the past treatment of the African Americans — what Abraham Lincoln called “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil,” followed by a century of segregation and what Lyndon Johnson called the era of “Nigra, nigra, nigra” — could alleviate their discomfort and expiate their guilt by the simple expedient of electing Barack Obama president. It was an idea that developed an unstoppable momentum before Hillary Clinton or her husband realized what they were facing.
There is no reason to believe that John McCain ever figured it out, as he tried to pick up the torch from a president whose response to an economic crisis to which his own lassitude had importantly contributed (though President Clinton stoked it up with mandated trillions of dollars of non-commercial mortgages) was the stirring tocsin “The sucker could go down.” Senator McCain first declared, in the immortal words of Herbert Hoover, that the economy “is fundamentally sound”; then denounced corporate greed and locked arms with the rest of the political class to pretend that the incompetence and venality of the country’s leaders had nothing to do with it; then demanded that poor old Christopher Cox be handed a pink slip at the SEC to be replaced with, of all unsuitable choices, Andrew Cuomo; and then suspended his campaign (in itself a potentially vote-winning move) and returned to Washington to join in the bipartisan strategy session President Bush convened. He did not say a word at it, and then shared in the failure to pass the emergency stimulus bill (which was a ridiculous bill that looked good only when compared with the Democrats’ subsequent, infamously “shovel-ready” replacement). Given the times, the incumbent, and the Republican campaign, it is a wonder that the sly Obama message, ably and eloquently delivered by him, did not elicit a much greater victory than it did.
The first Obama term achieved very little apart from the killing of bin Laden. Certainly the incoming regime was handed a nasty mess, economically and in the Middle East, but it is not now clear that the president achieved anything by not simply pulling out at once from Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not appear likely that there will be any useful after-effect of the trillions spent and many thousands of killed and wounded Americans and allies there. It all has an Ozymandian air, with no surviving physical monument to inspire poets of the distant future.
On health care, Obamacare has made things worse: Seventy percent of the population has splendid health care that someone else pays for (their employers deduct it as a tax expense, so the taxpayers pick up the tab, since the benefits are not taxable to the health-care recipients). And 30 percent of the people, 100 million Americans, receive inferior care for a rich country and are apt to go short of attention and run out of money if a crisis occurs. Only a bipartisan approach that laid the burden equitably on the lawyers, doctors, private hospital companies, paramedical unions, and pharmaceutical companies would be a useful reform and it was not even attempted.
The economic crisis was addressed by increasing the national debt, which had achieved the total of $10 trillion after 232 years of American independence, by 70 percent in four years, and by a false, euphemistically and flippantly encapsulated process of offering the funded debt at low-ball prices and, when large chunks were unsold, having the Treasury’s 100 percent subsidiary, the Federal Reserve, “buy” it by issuing notes for the purpose. Technically it is a debt increase, but in fact it is an increase of over 300 percent in the money supply in four years, straddling between the deflation that the inflation was designed to alleviate, and the inflation that only the tenacity of the deflation prevents from roaring out of control.
Like a charmed sleepwalker, this president has strolled along the tightrope distracting the voters with lofty disparagements of those who busy themselves with guns and religion, a faddish notion of ecology, a formidable conjuration of a Republican “war on women,” and spurious claims of an economic miracle in the making. The president was again fortunate in 2012 in having an ambiguous opponent who had no sense of how to go for the political jugular. Republicans may weep with nostalgia when they think of what Eisenhower, Nixon, or Reagan would have done with the opportunity to run against the Democrats in 2012 (they all recaptured the White House from the Democrats). But even the reinstalled Obama, who will never have to face the voters again, is still wasting the country’s and his own time with sub-presidential maunderings about race.
His initial interventions in the Martin-Zimmerman case were completely inappropriate and his avuncular lecture to the nation identifying Trayvon Martin as his younger self, up from the deceased’s previous status as the president’s unborn son, was an unscrupulous incitement of racial tensions through a masquerade as a racially handicapped person himself. All accessible indications are that the president was an unexceptional student who benefited from affirmative action to win scholarships out of high school and to Occidental College and Columbia University, and that that was also the explanation of his position at the Harvard Law Review, where he contributed no articles. It does not lie in the mouth of someone who has been the evocator and the beneficiary of majority decency and generosity in America to lecture those who have elevated him to the nation’s greatest office on their racial turpitude.
I dislike rhetorical questions, but does no one notice anything? Why are there demonstrations about the just and rigorous Zimmerman acquittal, and not about the spreading and deepening IRS scandal, about the cynical treatment of the Benghazi murders, or the crumbling economic recovery? And, on my second lamentation of the week, why is almost no one pointing out that the economy can’t recover as it did in the past until more people are adding value: mining, extracting, farming, manufacturing, or contributing real intellectual accretions, and not just generating transactional fees as stock-jobbers (Jefferson’s bugbear) and deal-makers, churning out legal invoices for compliance with proliferating regulations and frivolous or vexatious litigation, or feathering the overbuilt and overpopulated nests of academia?
The most frightening statistic in America, apart from the current and accumulated deficits and the numbers of the unemployed and underemployed, is that there are 440,000 students in the country’s business schools. Business is not an academic subject and few of the most capable businessmen, financiers, or industrialists are business-administration graduates. But the self-consciousness of businessmen at their inability to claim to be a learned profession drives them to devote billions of dollars of their shareholders’ and their own money to academic cathedrals of business study. Very few of the professors in them have ever actually run anything or made any money, and most of the curriculum is completely superfluous to a successful career in commerce. The resources should be devoted to giving back to society teachers who can impart to students the ability to read, write, and pass a grade-three arithmetic test of 50 years ago. As standards have collapsed in the public-sector education system, and an economic recovery fails to begin in an economy waterlogged with people pursuing redundant activities, the president continues to distract the population rather than lead it.
He should apply himself to the country’s real problems. The economy should be allowed to promote economic growth. Education should educate, and not put the educationally needful lethargically through the motions while the commercially successful use graduate studies as a receptacle for the placation of their psychiatric lacunae by turning out hundreds of thousands of graduates mistakenly conditioned to believe that they have actually learned something useful. Education isn’t really a federal prerogative, though successive presidents have tried to make it so, and, in America, ultimately only the president can lead. He is, as the longest-serving occupant of the position said, “the head of the American people.” This president should act like it and do the job he is paid to do.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.