WASHINGTON — Barack Obama, the first president shaped by the celebratory culture in which every child who plays soccer gets a trophy, and the first whose campaign speeches were his qualification for the office, perhaps should not be blamed for thinking that saying things is tantamount to accomplishing things, and that good intentions are good deeds. So, his presidency is useful after all, because it illustrates the perils of government run by believers in magic words and numbers.
The last progressive president promised Model Cities, with every child enjoying a Head Start en route to enjoying an Upward Bound into a Great Society. Today’s progressive president also uses words — and numbers — magically emancipated from reality.
Thirty months have passed since Obama said: “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Today, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, says Bashar Assad’s grip on power has “strengthened.” In last month’s State of the Union address, Obama defined success down by changing the subject: “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” If saying so makes it so, all is well.
Assad, however, seems tardy regarding this elimination, perhaps because the threat of force was never actually made. The Democratic-controlled Senate nullified the threat by its emphatic reluctance to authorize force. Reuters recently reported that Assad had surrendered “4.1 percent of the roughly 1,300 tons of toxic agents” he supposedly has. The “.1” is an especially magical number, given the modifier “roughly” attached to 1,300 tons.
The English Civil War was not finally ended by negotiations between Oliver Cromwell and Charles I; Cromwell seized power and Charles lost his head. America’s Civil War ended when Robert E. Lee capitulated to U.S. (“Unconditional Surrender”) Grant. Russia’s civil war ended when Leon Trotsky’s Red Army defeated the White forces. Spain’s civil war ended with Francisco Franco in Madrid and remnants of the loyalist forces straggling across the Pyrenees into France. China’s civil war ended when Chiang Kai-shek skedaddled to Formosa (now Taiwan), leaving the mainland to Mao. But Syria’s civil war — after the massacres, torture, chemical weapons — supposedly will be resolved by a negotiated regime change: with words. Next, words will supposedly result in Iran ending the decades-old and hugely expensive nuclear weapons program that it says is nonexistent, and will proceed.
The magic number 8 percent identified the level above which Obama’s administration said unemployment would not rise, thanks to the 2009 stimulus. Seven dollars is the figure, plucked from the ether, that Obama says will be saved by every dollar spent on “high quality” universal preschool, which is probably defined, with tidy circularity, as preschool that saves seven dollars for every dollar spent on it.
Forests continue to be felled to produce the paper on which are printed the continuing studies demonstrating that America, which has more than 2 million miles of natural gas pipelines and about 175,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines, would not be menaced by the 1,179 miles of Keystone XL. The new State Department study says construction “would support approximately 42,100 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced).” Obama, of course, has his own number. In a July 24, 2013, interview with The New York Times, he said construction “might create maybe 2,000 jobs.”
The workforce participation rate is at a 36-year low; in the second half of the fifth year of the recovery, a smaller fraction of the population is employed or looking for work than was when the recovery began. Nevertheless, the administration is cheerful about the Congressional Budget Office’s conclusion that the Affordable Care Act will substantially slow the growth of employment and compensation over the next decade.
The decrease is projected to be nearly three times larger than the CBO had previously predicted. The ACA’s insurance subsidies, which decline with rising income and increase with falling income, will cause many people to choose to stop working, or to work less, or to stop looking for work, thereby reducing the number of hours worked by the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time jobs by 2021.
An administration spokesman did not dispute the CBO’s key finding but hailed it as evidence that the ACA is increasing Americans’ choices. Really.
Many of the words and numbers bandied by Obama and his administration may reflect an honest belief that the world is whatever well-intentioned people like them say about it. So, Obama’s critics should reconsider their assumption that he is cynical. It is his sincerity that is scary.
In a previous column, I misstated the party breakdown of Florida’s 13th Congressional District and President Obama’s electoral victory margins there. The district is 37 percent Republican and 35 percent Democrat. Obama won by 3.8 points in 2008 and 1.4 in 2012.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com.