Skip to main content

Obama's 'do-something' plan for a 'have-nothing' government

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matt Welch: State of the Union featured content-free calls to action for action's sake
  • He says governed might want to know what they've gotten in return for ballooning debt
  • Didn't we try repairing infrastructure with the stimulus package? he asks
  • Welch: Rand Paul spoke to those who think government should get out of way

Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America" (Public Affairs).

(CNN) -- The two most memorable lines of President Barack Obama's fourth State of the Union address were the ad-libbed: "Get it done" (which doesn't appear in the remarks as prepared), and the emotional "They deserve a vote," concerning victims of gun violence.

As exasperated appeals for an obstructionist Congress to get off its duff, the exhortations provided emotional catnip for Democrats. For the rest of us, however, they were sobering reminders of what governing liberalism has deteriorated into: content-free calls to take action for action's sake.

Consumers of national governance are within their rights to ask just what we've gotten in return for ballooning the cost of the stuff since 2000. The answer may lie in not just what the president said, but what he has assumed we've already forgotten.

Matt Welch
Matt Welch

"Let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years," said the president, who promised a "Recovery Through Retrofit" three years ago. "The American people deserve a tax code that ... lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America," said the man who before he took office vowed to, uh, give "tax breaks to companies that are investing here in the United States."

That "aging infrastructure badly in need of repair"? Well, what happened to the $50 billion from the stimulus package dedicated to precisely that task, or the $50 billion plan 18 months later? Making college "more affordable"? That has been the motivation for continuous ratcheting of government involvement in higher education, which has -- surprise! -- coincided with a several-decade increase in tuition costs and student loan debt.

Greene: In 2013, democracy talks back

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Do-something politics works when Americans have amnesia, or are reacting to headline-making tragedies, or when they just want free stuff. But this irresistible force is butting up against the immovable object of a have-nothing U.S. Treasury. Debt service costs will soon overtake defense spending, and baby boomer entitlements are about to transform the federal government into a check-writing program for senior citizens.

Americans know by now that Obama can't possibly believe his own promises that his policies won't "increase our deficit by a single dime," not only because of his poor track record with that particular vow, but because he spends the rest of his time talking about all the various things the government needs to "invest" to create "broad-based growth." It's a conflict at the basic level of vision with those of us who think prosperity is mostly a private-sector affair that is on balance imperiled, not improved, by the exertions of a deficit-spending government.

Opinion: Obama dares Congress to get the job done

Obama calls for unity
GOP responds to the State of the Union
Watch Obama's State of the Union speech

Thankfully, and quite unlike during the 2012 presidential campaign, the competing vision was voiced Tuesday night. Not necessarily by a dehydrated but game Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address, but by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who did the honors online for the tea party.

"The path we are on is not sustainable," Paul said, directly. "All that we are, all that we wish to be, is now threatened by the notion that you can have something for nothing, that you can have your cake and eat it, too, that you can spend a trillion dollars every year that you don't have."

Paul dinged Republicans as well as Democrats, targeted military spending as well as entitlements, and spent a good 30 seconds giving a more full-throated defense of wartime civil liberties than the allegedly anti-war candidate Obama ever did.

Most importantly, he laid out a truly alternative vision that speaks directly to the growing number of Americans who feel like the federal government has failed as the engine of economic growth, and needs urgently to take a back seat before it does more harm.

Rothkopf: This time, a president in full

"What America needs," Paul said, "is not Robin Hood, but Adam Smith." As Obamanomics continues underperforming through a second term, it will be fascinating to see whether Ron Paul's kid can get more people to agree.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT