The White House’s Game of Chicken

Published July 7, 2011

Today in Washington, Barack Obama’s White House is fully engaged in a game of chicken. But it’s not with Republicans in Congress. It’s with the truth about the future.

Throughout the closed-door talks over the federal budget deficit and the debate over raising the debt ceiling—talks led by Vice President Joe Biden, a profound sign of disrespect for the seriousness of the issue—Obama’s inability to grasp the reality of his situation has been palpable. In doubling down on his belief in the need to raise taxes, Obama is pushing Congress to punish job-creators even as the public faces further skyrocketing of unemployment rates.

Obama continues to press the idea that the nation’s economic woes are inherited, not a product of his own policies. It’s a view he has maintained in defiance of reality, as nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf pointed out in testimony on Capitol Hill last week, saying, “uncertainty about federal policy is diminishing household and business spending and that uncertainty covers a whole set of policies: It covers tax policy, it covers regulatory policy, and it covers health policy.”

Consider just one aspect of the government-perpetuated uncertainty Elmendorf noted—health policy. Arguably the only significant piece of legislation Obama has passed in his presidency, the implementation of his health care law is already rife with uncertainty and mismanagement.

The announcement, buried on a Friday afternoon, that Obama’s Health and Human Services Department would no longer be issuing waivers from the law as of this September is a perfect example. More than 50 percent of the employees receiving waivers from Obama’s law are union members. The AARP, whose support was key to the law’s passage, received a waiver for its Medigap policies—a half-billion-dollar cash cow for the organization. Yet the waivers granted are temporary, designed to quiet these organizations until after the next election. This is the essence of Obama’s policy approach: a steadfast belief in the Chicago-style picking of winners and losers, and a pathological dedication to kicking the can down the road.

As to the deficit and the debt ceiling, Obama is betting the current crop of Republicans will be just as weak-willed as Republican Congresses of the past, and just as willing to stick the next generation with today’s thorny problems. But just talking with members of Congress (if Obama would take the time to do such things) for a few minutes would quickly put an end to such a false understanding.

This new crop of individuals owes nothing to the tut-tutting establishment figures who deride such principled stands as gauche. On the contrary, they owe everything to a populist base of support that is tired of seeing its taxpayer dollars and children’s inheritances wasted. When Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) walked out of meetings last week, it was a direct and intentional signal to the president: We’re not budging.

True, not all Republicans have the spine for that. Many remain concerned about the politics of such actions, the risks of taking a stand for smaller government and cutbacks in programs. Such courage comes unnaturally to the establishment. But such RINOs are now outnumbered by Republicans who recognize these qualms as concern about career, not country, and to whom their political future matters a lot less than the future of our nation.

The hard part about playing chicken, the saying goes, is knowing when to flinch. What Obama does not recognize is that the future doesn’t flinch. It arrives whether you want it to or not, and it can be waived and ignored only for just so long.

Benjamin Domenech ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.