The Right Opinion

Government by Freakout

Obama's scare tactics aren't much of a long-term strategy.

By Peggy Noonan · Feb. 23, 2013

The president's sequester strategy is like Howard Beale in “Network”: “Woe is us. . . . And woe is us! We're in a lot of trouble!”

It is always cliffs, ceilings and looming catastrophes with Barack Obama. It is always government by freakout.

That's what's happening now with the daily sequester warnings. Seven hundred thousand children will be dropped from Head Start. Six hundred thousand women and children will be dropped from aid programs. Meat won't be inspected. Seven thousand TSA workers will be laid off, customs workers too, and air traffic controllers. Lines at airports will be impossible. The Navy will slow down the building of an aircraft carrier. Troop readiness will be disrupted, weapons programs slowed or stalled, civilian contractors stiffed, uniformed first responders cut back. Our nuclear deterrent will be indefinitely suspended. Ha, made that one up, but give them time.

Mr. Obama has finally hit on his own version of national unity: Everyone get scared together.

Obviously the potential budget cuts the administration is announcing – well, not announcing but warning of – are the kind that would cause maximum pain, inconvenience or alarm. Obviously too, the administration doesn't want to be clear about exactly who might be affected, how or when. Let the imaginative dwell on the extent of the menace; let them do it on cable news.

In a way it's all brilliant showbiz: Scare people into supporting your position. But we've been though it before, and you wonder, again, why a triumphant president and a battered Republican House majority can't reach a responsible agreement.

And then you remind yourself why. Because Mr. Obama thrives in chaos. He flourishes in unsettled circumstances and grooves on his own calm. He spins an air of calamity, points fingers and garners support. His only opponent is a hapless, hydra-headed House. America has a weakness for winners, and Republicans just now do not look like winners. They have many voices but no real voice, and no one saying anything that makes you stop and think. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is a singular character who tells you in measured tones that we must have measured answers. Half the country finds his politics to be too much to one side, but his temperament is not extreme and he often looks reasonable. With this gift he ties his foes in knots to get what he wants, which is higher taxes. He wants the rich to pay more and those he judges to be in need to receive more. End of story. Debt and deficits don't interest him, except to the extent he must give them lip service.

And so far this seems to be working fine for him. A USA Today/Pew Research Center poll out this week reported half the respondents said it will be the Republicans' fault if the sequester goes through. Only a third said they'd blame the president.

So it's tempting to see this moment as part of the continuing saga of Obama Triumphant. But I'm not so sure. Short-term you can win the way the president wins, but long-term? No, that's not the way to go.

Because government by freakout carries a price. It wears people down. It doesn't inject a sense of energy, purpose or confidence in those who do business in America, it does the opposite. The other day I was in a Wal-Mart in southern Florida. It was Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend but even accounting for that the mood and look of the place was different from what it was two and five years ago. Then, things seemed dynamic – what buys, what an array of products, what bustle in the aisles. This time it seemed tired, frayed, with fewer families and scarcer employees. It looked like a diorama of the Great Recession. What effect do all the successive fiscal cliffs, ceilings and sequesters, have on public confidence? On the public's spirit? They only add to the sense that Washington is dysfunctional and cannot possibly help us out of the mire.

It shows the world we lurch from crisis to crisis by habit now. This makes us look incapable and beset.

It further sours the sourest White House-Capitol Hill relationship of modern political history. That relationship probably can't get worse – it was actually breaking news this week that the president picked up a phone and called a Republican senator – but it's not good to see no possibility of repair.

It leaves the vulnerable feeling more anxious, and the sophisticated feeling more jerked around. The president is usually called popular, but his poll numbers are well below Bill Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's at this point in their presidencies. He's pretty much stuck at George W. Bush's levels. The president and his people overestimate his position in this 50-50 country.

Beyond that, the president damages himself with his cleverness. At the end of the day he looks incapable of creating a sense of stability. The thing he misses as he shrewdly surveys the field is what he is: the president. He is the man people expect to lead, to be wiser. He is the one they expect to come up with a plan that is a little more than Let's Threaten Catastrophe. As Ron Fournier asked in a spirited piece in National Journal, is the fiscal standoff “just about scoring political points, or is it about governing? If it's all about politics, bully for Obama. A majority of voters will likely side with the president over Republicans. . . . If it's about governing, the story changes: In any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure. . . . There is only one president.”

Republicans on the Hill, of course, are being cast as the nihilists in the drama, as the ones who want to blow things up. But is that even remotely fair? They just lost a battle on taxes – they fought, got their heads handed to them and accepted an increase in rates. What they are saying now to the president is: “OK, we gave you tax increases. Don't demand more right now, work with us on spending cuts and a broad and coherent tax-reform plan. Don't do the kind of small, targeted loophole-closing that's just meant to torment the dread rich, do something more solid and comprehensive. And yes, let's move to do what we can on entitlement spending.”

That's not very radical.

If they wanted to be nihilists – and they must sometimes feel tempted – they could be. They could let the president have everything he wants – more spending,higher taxes – while making a great rhetorical show of resistance, and then caving in. They could give him everything he asks for and let the economy suffer for it, which would help resistance to Obamanomics spread and grow. The debt and the deficit would grow. Economic malaise would continue and deepen. You could call this the H.L. Mencken approach: “Democracy,” he observed, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

But congressional Republicans will not do that. Because, actually, they're not nihilists. And yes, they'd co-own the catastrophe and risk being swept out.

But time may be their friend. The president looks strong now, but governing by freakout has too many costs. Again, he is overplaying his hand.


Lee in Phoenix said:

The big O spent his first two years of not governing on the basis that all the needs of the country were GWB's problems and therefore outside his scope of responsibility.

When the blame GWB strategy finally got old enough to lose its effectiveness, for the next two years Barry shifted the blame to those evil Republican obstructionists.

Now he's been caught in enough lies and contradictions to require yet another scapegoat, so he's throwing the entire CONGRESS under the bus, including his own party.

All conservatives have come to expect this and have stopped pushing back at the MSM's cover for this incompetent.

My question: will the democrats ever get fed up with this crap too?

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 9:55 AM

Tex Horn in Texas said:

He [Obama] is the man expected to lead, to be wiser."

Ha-ha-ha. What an effing joke.

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Rod in USA replied:

But he has so much real world practical experience, Tex. *C'mon, man!* What a joke. But I am not LOL.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 12:16 PM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri said:

Ms Noonan, one of your best posts. Obama is a typical Flim-Flam artist. As for needing someone in congress with a voice to present a message, we actually have at least four: they are Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz. Sadly all we have reporting the so-called news is the Marxist MSM. It`s pretty much impossible to get your message out when all you have to report it is a corrupt media.

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 12:56 PM

Mindblown in Flyover USA said:

"Obviously the potential budget cuts the administration is announcing -- well, not announcing but warning of -- are the kind that would cause maximum pain, inconvenience or alarm."

Right. BUT not the truth about what's really involved. And, Pegs, you did nothing to clarify. Its less than 2% reduction in growth of spending. "O" wants everyone to get hysterical about that when EVERY working American just got their own paychecks cut by the 2% increase in payroll taxes. Yes, that was a "holiday" granted by the ever-caring "O". Let's just call this reduction a "holiday" from govt. growth.

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 1:04 PM

HP in Kalispell, MT said:

Photo IDs for voters would have ended this...

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 1:14 PM

Miss Kitty in Missouri replied:


Monday, February 25, 2013 at 12:17 PM

Mark in Mo said:

Outstanding, Pegs. Outstanding!!! Triple kudoos! I can't remember when I've read anything with so much joy. Finally, a journalist who "gets it!" Big Time!! I don't mean to brag, but when this fraud first came to the front - and checking on his background - I had the terrible sense that he was out to "get even with Whitey!" Yeah, call it racism - because it is - for HIM!.
Why? Because he gets away with it - and folks are afraid to call him out.
He is shrewd. We thought "Slick Willy" did well. Obummer makes Clinton
look like an amateur. And we got four more years! It will take years to get over the damage his is doing.

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 1:30 PM

BJ in St. Cloud, MN said:

The sequester is not a cut. It is merely a small decrease in the increase they wanted. If the pols in DC can't do this little tiny back off on the total they proposed previously it's time for ALL of them to go It's my money, they work for me. I want the crooks fired. Let's not send the 20 F-16's and 200 Abrams tanks to our enemy the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Let's not give the 400 million to the murdering abortionists at Planned Parenthood. And last, let's cut back on the socialist scums green fees.


Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 5:40 PM

Paul Goode in Richmond, VA said:

Someone must have snuck in a last-minute Find-and-Replace, substituting "Obama" for "the Republicans and the NRA." We just have to remember that Noonan predicted a Romney win based on attendance at a rally in Morrisville, PA. (BTW, Obama carried Bucks County.)

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 10:39 AM

Master Gunny in Tifton GA said:

Obama gets away with his mindless dribble because he must have studied drama rather than law (we'll never know since his records are sealed). Like Joseph Goebbels he controls the press and utters inanities that strike an emotional chord with the most ill-educated and over-entertained generation in human history. To beat him at his own game the Republicans must get down to the same level as he and make their message Hollywood-style. Calm, reasoned, and factual discourse is dead. Melodramatic, sensationalized, and disingenuous propaganda is the new normal. We are not dealing with merely another corrupt and narcissistic Chicago style thug but rather a evil man who would assume total power if he could find a way to do it. Even more alarming is the power base who supports him, the elitists on one side and the legions of people who survive (nay prosper) on the entitlements programs.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 11:05 AM

Rod in USA said:

Her point is valid: "Never let a crisis go to waste."

I believe a lot of the crises we experience are either manufactured from thin air, or real minor issues blown out of proportion. The current sequestration is the latter: A cut in the growth rate of spending is a major hit and causes all of that catastrophe? **NOT!**

Back in the late 90's, just a little over a decade, we spent only $2.1T per year. Back in 2008 our annual shortfall (the deficit, or difference in annual spending over annual tax receipts) was only $450 billion. Now we spend DOUBLE every year and we have TRIPLE the deficit. As a result the debt (balance owing after all of our annual shortfalls (deficits) are added) is over $16 TRILLION. Obama added in four years more debt than any previous president.

And what do we have to show for it? 15% unemployment (as Mac says, *real* numbers, folks), or 8% AFTER trillions in spending and the Obama administration cooking the books on unemployment in ways that wouyld get a business person thrown in jail. Double the poverty and double the number of people on foodstamps. But its just fine to steal resources from hard working people and give away free stuff to the recipient class (see the infamous "free cell phone woman").

There is a reason Senator Reid has not passed a budget: He is in league with Obama to facilitate this insanity and drive America *forward* to communism. because after all, it has proven to be far superior so many times in history (sarcasm, folks).

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 12:14 PM

charlie in PA said:

There was another guy who ruled by freakout, forget his name. German I think; maybe it began with H.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 3:15 PM

Cal in SoCal said:

Right on Master Gunny! Right on! Obummer is a shrewd operator backed
by the Chibago mob and other big money, taking a big chunk out of our
Treasurery and setting themselves up for more. He also has a big chip on his shoulders and is "paying back" whitey. Voters fell for the guilt trip and the big star syndrom. He has set up a big dependent class and will use that to sink us. If voters don't seen wise up, it will take years, if ever, to undo his tricks. It is the height of irony that our greatness is being used against us. That is, using our own money to destroy us.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 3:17 PM