“The great bottom-line hope back in November 2008,” the liberal journalist
Michael Tomasky wrote four years ago, “was that Obama was going to restore
trust in government and prove it could solve problems. That hasn’t happened.”
Tomasky was addressing a rhetorical and political problem: Democrats’ failure “to mount a stronger case” for activist government. One the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, however, the failure to vindicate activist government is more basic. The problem is what Democrats, especially those in the Obama administration, are doing, rather than what they are or are not saying.
As recently as June 2013, more Americans approved than disapproved of
President Obama’s job performance, according to the Real Clear Politics average of the major polls on the question. But by December of last year he was more than 15 percentage points “under water,” with disapproval ratings above 55% and approval ratings just over 40%. It has now been more than a year since Obama’s disapproval number was less than 50% at any time, or his approval rating above 45%. With less than two weeks until Election Day, the average is 41.4% approve and 53.6% disapprove.
What happened? Restoring trust in government and proving it could solve problems has been undermined by one fiasco after another. First, and most
consequentially, was the dysfunctional healthcare.gov website’s debut, which
led to the resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen
Sebelius. It seemed beyond belief that the Obama administration, given three years to prepare for the launch of its most important domestic program,
would be so inept. Along with the incompetence was the dissembling:
President Obama’s repeated assurances that if you liked your health plan you
could keep it also turned out to be beyond belief.
Any hopes that Obamacare was an outlier was dashed by subsequent debacles.
Substandard care and dishonest reporting at Veterans Health Administration
hospitals forced the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. News stories about an armed civilian riding an elevator with the president, and another running across the White House lawn and through its unlocked doors brought about the resignation of Secret Service director Julia Pierson.
Now comes the Ebola virus, and another shaky performance by Team Obama. Last month the president said that “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola
does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here
at home.” But the unlikely event occurred, and it shortly proved that we were unprepared despite any new measures.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, has not yet
been forced to resign. But he manages to sound alarming when speaking
cautiously about Ebola: “There will not be a large outbreak here barring a
mutation,” he told a congressional committee last week.
Frieden also sounds alarming (and incoherent) when speaking incautiously
about it. At a press conference he was asked about the president’s statement
that Ebola cannot be contracted “through casual contact, like sitting next to someone on a bus.” By way of clarification, Frieden said that a “member
of the traveling public” should not be worried that he might have gotten Ebola by “sitting next to someone.” On the other hand, if you think you might have Ebola you should not get on a bus because, “You might become ill, you might have a problem that exposes someone around you.”
In 2006, as the George W. Bush administration was lurching toward
repudiation in the midterm elections, political scientist Alan Wolfe blamed
conservatism itself for Bush’s failures. His widely discussed essay, “Why
Conservatives Can’t Govern,” argued that conservatives fail at governance
because they are in “the awkward position of managing government agencies
whose missions—indeed, whose very existence—they believe to be
This argument, whether sound or dubious, does invite us to generalize from
Obama’s failures to the broader liberal project. In the wake of the
Obamacare’s website belly flop, columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, “There’s a
lesson here that liberals apparently need to learn over and over: Good
intentions without proper administration can undermine even the most noble
How is it possible that grownups, ostensibly dedicated to the proposition
that government can solve problems, must learn such an elementary lesson
over and over? One explanation for this anomaly is that liberals are,
regarding any social ill, adamant that government do something, but
unconcerned about whether it accomplishes anything.
Noble goals remain noble whether they’re attained or not. And liberals can easily demonstrate their own nobility by demanding new programs and bigger budgets, as opposed to the hard work of making sure existing programs are effective, or are abandoned if they can’t be made effective. If, as Georges Clemenceau said, war is too important to be entrusted to soldiers, the Obama administration may end up demonstrating that social problems are too important to be remedied by
William Voegeli, a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, is author
of “The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.”