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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Wente

Hope and change won’t cut it now Add to ...

Back in 2008, I was among Barack Obama’s biggest fans. Most other Canadians were, too. He was attractive, he was smart, he was young and, best of all, he wasn’t George Bush. The United States was in an awful mess, and the world economy was teetering. The old order was finished, and everyone was desperate for change. I was ecstatic when he won. I had faith that he was smart enough to get it (whatever it turned out to be). I knew his halo would be tarnished soon enough. But I figured he could scarcely make things worse than they were.

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Today, the love affair is over. If I were voting in this election, I don’t know what I’d do. The main thing Mr. Obama has going for him is that he’s not Mitt Romney, who strikes me as a decent enough man who’s been taken hostage by a bunch of lunatics. Unfortunately, the fact that you’re not the other guy is not the most inspiring argument for re-election. Can Mr. Obama make a better one? Tonight, we’ll see. That hopey changey stuff won’t cut it. We need to hear he’s got some idea of what ails America, what unites it and how to get back its mojo.

The trouble with Mr. Obama is that he’s playing defence. Yes, he got dealt a rotten hand. Maybe no one could have done better than he’s done. Probably the economy would be bad no matter what. Maybe the evil Republicans are entirely to blame for refusing to strike a budget deal. Maybe the gridlock is all their fault.

But the excuse that he was just a captive of events isn’t much of a campaign platform. As for Obamacare – the main accomplishment of his first term – perhaps the less said, the better. Although Canadians are convinced that Obamacare is great, an astonishing number of Americans – even Democrats – are not. They’re afraid it’s a bureaucratic nightmare that will break the bank. The real problem with U.S. health care is that my stepmother’s new pacemaker cost $100,000. Obamacare won’t fix that.

Mr. Obama can’t run on his biography again, either. I admire his humble origins, and I’m glad he’s still the same sincere guy Michelle married (although I doubt his socks still stink). But a man who connects with ordinary people? I don’t buy it. Mr. Obama dwells in the world of the technocratic elites, who believe that a government with enough smart people and smart policies can solve all our problems. (This is a cherished Canadian myth, and one reason we relate to him.)

I suspect Mr. Obama knows no more about ordinary people than Mr. Romney does. Like immense wealth, the White House tends to isolate a person. Mr. Obama is surrounded by people who tell him he walks on water – and, by most accounts, he believes it.

But his greatest problem is that he doesn’t seem to know the old order is finished. He seems to think that all he needs to do is tax the rich, wait it out and soon the good times will return. That’s not a vision, or a plan. It’s a fantasy.

What he really needs to talk about is the rights of the unborn. By the unborn, I mean his future grandchildren and all the other children of the next generation who will bear the burden of an entitlement machine that’s out of control. Forget about shrinking government. The size of government is about to grow as never before, Lawrence Summers, who was one of Mr. Obama’s top economic advisers, has argued in The Washington Post.

There are three reasons, he says. First, the cost of old-age benefits (which are already 32 per cent of the federal budget) will explode as society ages. Second, interest payments on the federal debt will soar. And third, the complexity of the services that government buys (health care, education) will make them far more costly. The historical level of federal spending was 21 per cent. Today, it’s 24 per cent. Soon, Mr. Summers reckons, it will be 31 per cent.

Cutting other spending, such as defence, won’t solve the problem. Entitlement spending now accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. budget. Half this spending goes to the old, and nearly half the country is on the dole. According to the Census Bureau, just over 49 per cent of U.S. households were using at least one government benefit to help support themselves in 2011. In the early 1980s, the number was about 30 per cent.

The entitlements explosion was a bipartisan affair. Both Republicans and Democrats were responsible for it, and Mr. Bush was among the worst. But now, both parties are in full flight from reality. Neither will admit that simply meeting current levels of commitments will require massive increases in both taxes and (somehow) revenue. America has turned into a society that eats its young.

Mr. Romney has nothing credible to say about this. But Mr. Obama doesn’t seem to know there’s a problem. If only he could bring himself to say, as he did in 2009, that it’s time for “a new era of responsibility.” That hopey changey stuff won’t cut it any more. Americans are still in crisis, and they’ll need more than happy talk to fix it.

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