Mr. President, step away from the economy

Andy Matthews

The conventional wisdom has it that President Obama's most egregious error during his first year in office was his decision to focus the bulk of his attention on health care, rather than on "fixing" the economy.

"At the exact moment the public was announcing it worried about jobs first and debt and deficits second," conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, "the administration decided to devote its first year to health care, which no one was talking about."

Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, he of Cornhusker Kickback infamy, lamented to the Fremont Tribune that "it was a mistake to take health care on as opposed to continuing to spend the time on the economy."

This misplacement of priorities, we are told, explains the precipitous drop in the president's poll numbers over the past year. Now, a course correction is needed if Obama wants to a) salvage what's left of his presidency, and b) do right by the country.

The White House got the message. In his State of the Union speech last week, the president told the nation that "jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I am calling for a new jobs bill tonight." Obama referred to "jobs" 26 times in his speech, more than twice as often as health care or health insurance.

And so it's agreed: The administration has seen the error of its ways, and from now on, fixing the economy and creating jobs will be Priority One for Team Obama.

Now, not to rain on this fun, bi-partisan agree-a-thon, but isn't this just about the worst thing we could ask for right now?

If memory serves, the guy who's telling us he's now gearing up to "fix" the economy is the same guy who, way back in the year 2009, gave us the historically massive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was supposed to … fix the economy.

For those who missed it, Obama's first take at playing economic Mr. Fix-it didn't exactly work out as we were told it would. That $787 billion "stimulus" package bought us double-digit unemployment and deficits as far as the eye can see, but that's about it. Should Americans really be salivating for another helping? Didn't this guy do enough damage the first time?

Actually, the stimulus debacle did produce two things of enormous value: a teachable moment regarding the administration's sheer ignorance of all things economic, and the opportunity to watch modern-day liberalism fail so completely and publicly that it may now have been discredited for a generation.

The way to jumpstart a sluggish economy — as anyone who didn't sleep through the entire 20th Century understands — is to remove governmental barriers to private-sector-driven economic growth. That this point is either entirely lost on or irrelevant to the administration becomes clear when one considers that the stimulus package did the exact opposite: It grew government at the expense of the private sector. The dreadful results were all too predictable. And the ideological rigidity behind the stimulus is exactly what ensures that future attempts by this administration to address our economic challenges will prove no more effective. The only policy solutions with any real hope of succeeding are, by default, kept off the table.

So to say that Obama would have enjoyed a more successful first year had he focused more on the economy misses the point. Any president who so fundamentally misunderstands the reasons why some societies prosper while others remain stagnant is predestined to fail on economic matters. Given this president's faith in government intervention as the necessary starting point for solving all of society's problems, anything he touched in the economic realm was destined to go badly — and anything he touches in the future will meet a similar fate. In short, we've seen what "focusing on the economy" means to this crowd. And it ain't pretty. The State of the Union speech — chock full of ideas for new, big-spending initiatives — only confirmed the President's commitment to his failed strategy.

And so when the president tells us he's now shifting his focus to the economy, there's only one serious way to take it: as a threat.

To be sure, President Obama will, through this recalibration, score some short-term political points. By shifting his emphasis to jobs and the economy, he is sending a message to Americans that is sure to be warmly received: Your priorities are my priorities.

But the President's dogmatic commitment to his statist ideology gives the ending away. Barring a complete reversal of his philosophical bearings, we know that his next attempt to "fix" the economy — and the one after that, and the one after that — will involve increasing the size and scope of government while choking the private sector. As night follows day, things will again get worse, not better.

And the public will begin to long for the days when the president was bogged down in his ill-fated attempt to reform health care.

Andy Matthews is vice president for operations and communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.