A year ago, I was privileged to be one of several guests at a dinner with President-elect Barack Obama. One thing that struck me and others, aside from his courtesy and fluency, was his air of self-confidence. The man who had risen in just four years from state senator to president of the United States seemed sure he could master the job.
I wonder if he is as sure now. It seems to me that two assumptions that Obama carried into the White House -- assumptions that were shared by many who hadn't voted for him -- have proved to be unfounded.
The first is that economic distress would lead more Americans to favor big government policies. The second is that Obama's personal characteristics and his repudiation of many of his predecessor's policies would change the minds of America's critics and enemies.
Any doubts that these assumptions were mistaken were dispelled at Christmastime. On Christmas Eve, the Senate passed a massive health care bill that according to every public opinion poll is opposed by most Americans. And on Christmas Day, Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came close to destroying an airliner as it was preparing to land in Detroit.
The unpopularity of the stimulus package, cap-and-trade legislation and the various health care bills probably surprised the congressional Democratic leaders who put them together and the president who, with surprising passivity, indicated he would sign them. After all, weren't these ways to spread the wealth to ordinary people, as Obama put it to Joe the Plumber?
But through most of our history, Americans have preferred policies that enable and help them to amass wealth rather than those that purport to transfer someone else's wealth to them. The biggest outpouring of political sentiment this year came from those who thronged to "tea parties" and denounced increases in the national debt as stirringly as did the first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, who actually paid it all off.
On foreign policy, Obama imagined that confessing past American sins, announcing the closing of Guantanamo and abandoning enhanced interrogation techniques would make Islamist terrorists think better of the United States. He thought he could induce the leaders of enemy nations to change their ways by referring respectfully to regimes like Iran's and downplaying all talk of human rights abuses.