If Obama Wins… Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series. 
Part 1 can be found here
A satire of the Obama presidency can be viewed here.—- 

In three short weeks America will go to the polls, and if the current polls are in the least bit accurate, elect Barack Obama to the presidency. This will end the presidential ambitions of John McCain and I suspect Hillary Clinton. It will also mark the high point of the Democratic Party for the next 20 years, and mark the end of the current generation of Republican Party with its roots in the Reagan Revolution and Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America.

Psychologically his ascendancy to the highest office in the land will inspire faith in the system for the disenfranchised – for a while. However people’s expectations for his presidency are completely out of whack with the reality of the office he will assume come January 2009, and if the Republicans need a strategy to survive as a party, they could do worse by encouraging them once the election is over.

Obama cannot lift an entire segment of the population out of poverty. There will be no increased handouts under an Obama administration, no slavery reparations that will turn everyone in the inner-city into millionaires overnight.  The tax credits he proposes – the ones that pay the poorest back more than they pay in taxes won’t be noticeable. A few hundred dollars extra in their pockets will not make them feel rich, even if the tax package becomes reality after it goes through the meat-grinder of the budget process.

Barack Obama will face a deficit of half a trillion dollars (some forecast a deficit in 2009 of $700 billion)  and a total debt of $9.67 trillion with declining tax revenues, thanks to a recession that economist Nouriel Roubini predicts will be the worst in 40 years.  There cannot be an explosion of social programs that some on the Left would like without the money to pay for it. Even nationalized health care, which is possibly the Democrat’s most popular platform plank (I even support it to some degree) isn’t possible under such economic conditions. While the Republican party will be in disarray, opposition to spending will most likely come from his own party: the so-called “blue dog Democrats” who opposed the recent Wall Street bailout bills.

What do his supporters expect? Since many of the disenfranchised don’t know about budget constraints or separation of powers they will either become impatient with Obama or blame a conspiracy – most likely the latter.

What can Obama do the economy? The American economy is roughly $15 trillion. As Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are finding out, it’s not easy to control such a large economy. The US Federal Budget for 2009 submitted by President Bush weighed in at $3.1 trillion. Even if as expected Obama boosts spending significantly over the next four years it is unlikely that he can either “save the economy” (as his supporters believe) or “wreck it” as his detractors expect. Managing such a large economy using federal spending is like controlling a car using only one wheel; while it is possible for a single tire to make the economy speed up or slow down a little it can’t turn the car around on its own. 

Where Obama will have the greatest impact will be on taxes, which can be “reformed” or flat-out overturned by a Republican congress or presidency in the future. I believe that it’s likely such manipulation by Obama will make any recession worse; however to blame a Depression or recession on him alone is giving the man and the position power that they lack. The forces that are at play in the economy – bad loans and deflating asset values – are complex economic forces that took years to develop and will take just as long to dissipate. But American capitalism has weathered similar crises in the past and will no doubt survive them in the future.

Another area of impact will be his administration’s effect on the judiciary. By appointing judges to the lower courts and having his party in the majority to rubber stamp them, an Obama presidency can leave its mark on the federal judiciary that will outlast its potential eight years in office. Given the likelihood that the Republicans will eventually regroup to resist the more extremist appointments to the lower courts after the 2010 election at the earliest (more likely 2012), expect the next Congress to fill most judicial vacancies quickly. I would expect this to be one of the Obama administration’s highest priority early in his first term.

What about the Supreme Court? Is the 2nd Amendment about to be repealed and abortion made legal for all ages and in all forms? The most conservative justices on the bench also happen to be some of the youngest: Clarence Thomas (60), Samuel Alito (58), and John Roberts (53). Only Antonin Scalia and moderate Anthony Kennedy are showing any kind of wear at 72. Any Supreme Court appointment by Obama will most likely replace one of the aging liberals on the bench. If I were a gambling man I would bet that John Paul Stevens (88) can’t wait for Obama to takeover so that he can retire – possibly as early as Spring 2009. In the end I would expect no changes to the direction of the court unless Obama pulls an FDR and tries to pack it – and the medication I’m on to control my paranoia makes that hard for me to believe.

UPDATE 10/20/2008:
For a contrasting view visit Roger Kimball, “Is Obama a “transformational figure”? You don’t know the half of it.”

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  1. James:

    I find this essay hard to understand.

    The premise seems to be that Obama’s constituency consists largely of the disenfranchised, and that they will suffer disappointment when they realize he can’t make their dreams come true.

    However, I think it’s safe to say that the disenfranchised are the most cynical group in U.S. society, not the least. These are the Americans who tend to believe that nothing will change, that politicians will promise the moon, but end up serving the interests of the wealthy and privileged.

    Moreover, this argument doesn’t seem to square with who supports whom in this election. According to the most recent demographic breakdown I’ve seen, Obama leads McCain among voters in all income groups, suggesting that Obama’s supporters aren’t especially likely to be among the nation’s disenfranchised.

    The essay also suggests that Obama supporters are particularly likely to be disappointed because they aren’t educated enough to know better. In fact, the fifth paragraph argues directly that many of his supporters will be suspect a conspiracy against them, because the disenfranchised “don’t know about budget constraints or separation of powers.”

    So it’s worth pointing out, I think, that according to the same polls, Obama’s supporters are more educated than McCain’s, not less. In fact, Obama leads McCain heavily among those with college educations and post-graduate degress, while McCain holds a slim lead among those with only a high school education or less.

    If it weren’t for these apparent misconceptions about McCain and Obama supporters, I might have had any easier time understanding this essay.



  2. Scott Kirwin:


    By disenfranchised I mean a chunk of the African-American base of the Democratic party. Just because one is educated does not mean that she or he has an understanding of the balance of power. There is an all-too human tendency to grant the presidency more power than it actually has – which is why many otherwise intelligent people blame the Bush administration for the economic meltdown. This isn’t really a surprise since the office is granted a symbolic leadership role akin to the monarchies in other countries like the UK.

    If anything I would suggest that the educated and monied elites supporting Obama are some of the most ignorant when it comes to what the man can – and cannot – accomplish when he takes power. In my view they have crossed the line from rationality, constructing the irrational cult of personality around the man. Likewise conservatives have done the opposite, irrationally portraying Obama as the devil incarnate who will steal your guns and abort your children.

    These essays are my attempts to counter both extremes and realistically consider what an Obama presidency can and cannot do once it takes power.

  3. James:

    I think I see what you’re saying, Scott. You didn’t mean to refer to Obama’s supporters in general, but specifically to those black supporters who are disenfranchised and hoping that an Obama presidency would make a significant difference in their lives?

    That does make more sense to me, although I think that even more so than with disenfranchised voters in general, blacks in this country have a long history of deep skepticism towards political institutions. Certainly the impression I have is that most blacks, to the extent they fall into the group you’re describing, aren’t expecting much, if any, change (other than the usual changes between Republican and Democratic administrations, of course).

    I agree that few Americans seem to appreciate the very limited ability of the president of the United States to affect economic crises in the moment. (The impact of the president’s fiscal, tax, and regulatory policies, of course, have significant effects on whether crises emerge, how deep they are, and how quickly they pass.) However, this financial crisis is unprecedented, at least since the Great Depression, in the role played by the president (or, in this case, largely delegated to his Treasury Secretary, who lobbied for, and received, authority to administer a $700 billion bailout package with virtually unlimited discretion).

    I won’t argue your views that Obama’s more educated and wealthy supporters might be particularly naive about his ability to affect change once in power. I’ve seen no good information on what those supporters might be thinking, or why they might have more unrealistic hopes for their candidate than McCain’s more educated and wealthy supporters might have for him.

    Fascinating reading, Scott. Please keep up the good work!

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