Samuel Johnson famously said that a second marriage is a triumph of hope over experience. Each ballot cast in November by a middle-class working man or woman in America, especially an unemployed working-class man or woman, and most especially an unemployed worker in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in yet another presidential election might also be seen as a triumph of hope over experience.
After all, Barack Obama ran on the slogan “Hope and Change,” a slogan so beautifully mocked by Gov. Sarah Palin’s quip, “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” Gov. Palin, for all her faults, was on to something: That hopey-changey stuff hasn’t worked out well at all. Search the internet for “Pres Obama’s failed economic record” and you will get about 4,020,000 results in 0.56 seconds.
Unemployment may be down but the number of people who have dropped out of the work force has gone up: Labor force participation has fallen to a level not seen since March 1978. Gross domestic product growth has been anemic: Mr. Obama is the only president in history not to have a single year of growth of 3 percent or more. Meanwhile, poverty is up, as is the number of people on food stamps. Median income is down.
Could that failed record have been what drove Michelle Obama to say recently on the Oprah Winfrey Show, “We feel the difference now. See, now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like”? Probably not.
Probably she was simply expressing her disappointment and misgivings at Donald Trump’s victory, though President-elect Trump graciously said, “I actually think she made that statement not meaning it the way it came out, I really do.” Mr. Trump said, “I assume she was talking about the past, not the future — ‘cause I’m telling you, we have tremendous hope, and tremendous promise.”
Certainly that’s what the country seems to think. The stock market has shot up since Mr. Trump was elected, a rise that mirrors the mood of the people. Hope and change are in the air again, but their progenitor isn’t Barack Obama. Maybe that’s what Mrs. Obama meant, that there was no longer any hope that her husband would be the agent of the change so desperately wanted by so many. For so long.
We should hope that Mrs. Obama’s statement meant something different from what it seemed to be saying, coming as it did in the midst of the Christmas season. That season actually began on Advent Sunday, about four weeks before Christmas Day. For Christians, Christmas is a season of hope. And in the coming year, Americans — 70 percent of whom identify themselves as Christians — may get some of what they hoped for. It’s easy to understand why people care so much about politics, why they need to feel so much hope — about what the government does and, therefore, about who is in charge of deciding what government does. It matters. And it matters especially to people who have to make a living in the marketplace, and who can’t insulate themselves from the unattractive parts of life, whether it’s their boss, their neighbors, their health care system or their failing schools.
Because government is now so large, it affects almost everything everyone does. During Mr. Obama’s presidency, 20,000 new regulations have been added to the Code of Federal Regulations, a huge net of rules to catch, penalize and ruin the unsuspecting. Harvey Silverglate wrote a book called “Three Felonies a Day” — that’s what almost anyone who is doing anything in America is committing. For all the accusations of “fascism” leveled at Mr. Trump, it’s the progressive liberals (the kind of people who govern with pen and phone instead of representative assemblies) who are the real authoritarians. They’re the ones who want everyone to follow orders. Hey, you. You can’t limit adoptions to married couples. Hey, you. You can’t order that large soft drink. Hey, you. Take your own bag to the supermarket. Hey, you. Bake a cake for those homosexuals.
People have to care about government because government doesn’t care about people. And they have to care so much that there’s less time for caring about other things, like faith, hope and charity, and the obligations they impose and the joys they impart.
But there seems to be a new kind of government coming, one that promises to eliminate 90 percent of regulations, cut taxes, make America prosperous again, and appoint judges who will preserve the culture for which generations have fought.
Americans, when freed from the tyranny of excessive government, will have more time and money for the spiritually rewarding tasks of working with and supporting the hallmarks of a civil society, the mediating institutions that minister, in ways that government never can, to those who are in necessity and tribulation. To prisoners and captives. To fatherless children and widows. To the desolate and oppressed. To the sick in mind, body and estate. To the homeless and the hungry. To the forgotten old and the abandoned young.
To the least of the brothers and sisters of Him who came so silently, one night years ago, giving all the world hope.
That is the change some people were hoping for this Christmas season. That is the change they hope to experience in Anno Domini 2017.
• Daniel Oliver is chairman of the board of the Education and Research Institute and a director of Citizens for the Republic. He is a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, and a former executive editor and chairman of the board of National Review.