Obama Perpetuates the Myth of Bush as Free-Marketeer

In the State of the Union, Obama continued to blame Bush and the Republicans for our current economic problems. This is understandable for two reasons. First,the GOP does deserve a good deal of blame, though my list of their misdeeds would probably look different from Obama’s. Second, pretty much any president in Obama’s position would do the same thing.

Much less defensible is Obama’s attempt to claim that the Republicans purused free market policies during the last eight years, and thereby caused the economic crisis:

From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument — that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped us into this crisis. It’s what helped lead to these deficits. We can’t do it again.

In reality, of course, the Bush-era GOP greatly expanded government control of the economy, including major increases in spending, regulation, and federal “investment” in education. I discussed this at some length here, here, and here. Far from “maintain[ing] the status quo in health care,” Bush established the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the biggest new government program since the 1960s. Ironically, Obama referred to the prescription drug program and other Bush-era spending increases as contributing to the deficit earlier in this very same speech.

The Bush as free marketeer meme is an important prop in the Democrats’ case for massively expanding government control of the economy today. Logically, of course, it is possible to argue for such an expansion even if Bush did it too. Maybe he just didn’t go far enough, or didn’t calibrate his interventions as precisely as the Democrats plan to with theirs. From the standpoint of political rhetoric, however, it’s much easier for Obama to justify greatly expanded government if he can portray it as the opposite of his discredited predecessor’s policy. The gambit probably wouldn’t work if the public knew the facts about what Bush did. Obama, however, may be banking on widespread political ignorance, reinforced by the GOP’s image as the pro-free market party. He is far from the first politician to try to take advantage of ignorance. The Republicans have hardly been above doing the same thing when it suited their interests. But the fact that everyone does it doesn’t make it right.