With America's chief Arab ally teetering on the brink of chaos and collapse, with unemployment stubbornly stuck above 9 percent, with an entire economic system facing cataclysmic breakdown unless Congress simultaneously cuts spending and raises the debt ceiling, will President Barack Obama persist in his feeble efforts to rally the nation with expensive programs for solar panels and high-speed rail?
In his State of the Union address, the president suggested that this is our "Sputnik moment." Actually, it's beginning to feel like our "fall of the shah moment." In the spirit of an embarrassing television relic of the unlamented '70s, discerning White House observers might proclaim: "Welcome Back, Carter."
Administration apologists insist that when the president delivered last week's chipper and platitudinous State of the Union, he had no reason to expect the imminent unraveling of the seemingly stable Mubarak regime. Skeptics might ask, why not? Given our government's multibillion-dollar foreign intelligence budget and the vast resources committed to our huge Cairo embassy, how could the administration fail to anticipate the mortal threat to a key Middle Eastern ally?
Looking back on the president's carefully crafted rhetoric in addressing both houses of Congress, his words seem to belong to another era, not just another week.
The most revealing moment came in a brief passage intended to win the public with a folksy laugh line. Responding to calls for drastic cuts to shrink the deficit, the president warned: "And let's make sure that what we're cutting is excess weight. Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't be long before you feel the impact."
The polite titters in the House chamber masked the shocking assumption behind the president's words: To Mr. Obama, federal spending constitutes the indispensable engine that keeps all of society aloft. Governmental expenditure, not private effort and enterprise, keeps America moving.
At no point in his remarks did he allude to the inconvenient truth that the only source of money to maintain this spending is the productivity of the private sector. In light of the already devastating deficits, the only way to increase or even maintain current spending levels is to crush that private sector with crippling taxes, or to crush future generations with disastrous debt.
In the face of unfolding disaster in Cairo, not to mention the sweeping court decision declaring Obamacare a blatant violation of the Constitution, the president should junk every scrap of his silly and ill-conceived "Win the Future" investment agenda. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tartly observed: "Investment is just a polite Latin word for more government spending." Can even the most devoted Democratic Kool-Aid drinkers continue to claim that ambitious new expenditures represent a sure-fire cure for looming bankruptcy?
The president's defenders -- led, as always, by the shameless and indefatigable Chris Matthews -- found reason to praise the chief executive's sunny, reassuring, Reaganesque optimism. Time magazine even made the two presidents their joint cover-boys -- Obama and Ronald Reagan, smiling side by side, as if they were unlikely running mates. After all, the Gipper also ignored swelling deficits and sobering foreign threats and won a landslide re-election over Gloomy Gus Democrats by convincing the public that we had reached "morning in America."
The contrast in the fiscal situation undermines the comparison, however.
For Reagan, the deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product peaked at 6 percent, then declined as he sought re-election. Under Obama, that number rose above 10 percent, and the Congressional Budget Office recently projected it will remain at those levels throughout his first term. Moreover, Reagan campaigned for his second term with the unemployment rate at 7.2 percent and falling. No one -- not even the administration's bullish economic experts -- predicts that the sputtering, on-again/off-again recovery will take us below 8 percent any time near November 2012.
Moreover, there's a fundamental difference in the nature of Reagan's fondly remembered optimism and the forced, smiley-face good cheer of Obama's "Win the Future" sloganeering.
President Reagan felt confident about the American people; President Obama expresses confidence in the federal government. The 40th chief executive believed that ordinary citizens, through their own hard work and dedication, could overcome even the most misguided and damaging governmental policies. The 44th White House occupant maintains that robust government spending (er, investment) can overcome even the most acute suffering and anxiety on the part of the dejected populace.
Left-leaning media ridiculed the grim and sobering pronouncements by leading Republicans (most notably Rep. Paul Ryan) in their response to Obama's happy-talk. In light of the historic events that followed the big speech, including the Egyptian crisis and the judicial rejection of the president's utopian health care schemes, those warnings sound increasingly like a bracing, much-needed dose of realism and maturity.