WASHINGTON -- Not a great speech, but extremely consequential. If Barack Obama succeeds, his joint address to Congress will be seen as historic -- indeed as the foundational document of Obamaism. As it stands, it constitutes the boldest social democratic manifesto ever issued by a U.S. president.
The first part of the speech, justifying his economic stabilization efforts, was mere housekeeping. The economic crisis is to Obama a technocratic puzzle that needs to be solved because otherwise he loses all popular support.
Unlike most presidents, however, he doesn't covet popular support for its own sake. Some men become president to be someone, others to do something. This is what separates, say, a Ronald Reagan from a Bill Clinton. Obama, who once noted that Reagan altered the trajectory of America as Clinton had not, sees himself a Reagan.
Reagan came to office to do something: shrink government, lower taxes, rebuild American defenses. Obama made clear Tuesday night that he intends to be equally transformative. His three goals: universal health care, universal education, and a new green energy economy highly funded and regulated by government.
(1) Obama wants to be to universal health care what Lyndon Johnson was to Medicare. Obama has publicly abandoned his once-stated preference for a single-payer system as in Canada and Britain. But that is for practical reasons. In America, you can't get there from here directly.
Instead, Obama will create the middle step that will lead ultimately and inevitably to single-payer. The way to do it is to establish a reformed system that retains a private health-insurance sector but offers a new government-run plan (based on benefits open to members of Congress) so relatively attractive that people voluntarily move out of the private sector, thereby starving it. The ultimate result is a system of fully socialized medicine. This will likely not happen until long after Obama leaves office. But he will be rightly recognized as its father.
(2) Beyond cradle-to-grave health care, Obama wants cradle-to-cubicle education. He wants far more government grants, tax credits and other financial guarantees for college education -- another way station to another universal federal entitlement. He lauded the country for establishing free high school education during the Industrial Revolution; he wants to put us on the road to doing the same for college during the Information Age.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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