Byline: David Frum
Andrew Sullivan had good sport in these pages last week shooting fish in a barrel, rebutting the most unfair, the most intemperate, and the most flat-out crazy of the criticisms of President Obama.
Now let's move to the real debate. You don't have to succumb to ideological fever or paranoid fantasy to see that the Obama administration is dragging America to the wrong future: a future of higher taxes and reduced freedom, a future in which entrepreneurs will innovate less and lobbyists will influence more, a future in which individuals and communities will make fewer choices for themselves and remote bureaucracies will dictate more answers to us all.
The intentions are not malign. But it's not intentions that matter--it's results.
You begin to see those results in the small hearing rooms in which Social Security disability cases are decided. In the months since the financial crisis, the Social Security Administration has been awarding more and more disability pensions: almost 100,000 in the last month of 2011, 50 percent more than before the financial crisis.
Not much surprise there. Applications for disability have jumped even more steeply. It's not very likely that Americans are suddenly suffering a lot more accidents than they used to suffer, back when many more of them were working. More likely: with unemployment higher, more people are seeking help--and with jobs scarce, more judges are saying yes.
It's easy to sympathize with the thinking of the individual Social Security judges. Here's a worker who has lost her job as a forklift operator. Five years ago, a judge might have told her: forget the pension, Walmart is hiring. But now Walmart isn't hiring--or anyway, not hiring enough. So the judge relents. Why not give the applicant just a little something? An extra $12,000 a year (the size of the average award) won't break the federal budget. The country can figure out later how to pay for it. Which is how it happened that we're on the verge of enrolling the 9 millionth American on disability--almost double the number of the late 1990s.
Of course, as the federal government manages more and more disability pensions, it must hire more judges and administrators to hear and process those requests. Employment at the Social Security Administration is up by more than 6,000 since 2007, or 10 percent. In fact, hiring is up across the federal government, by 15 percent since 2007. Federal hiring has been more than offset by layoffs at the state and local level. But when the economy recovers, as it will, the states and localities will hire again--and at the rate we're going, an upswing in state and local hiring won't be balanced by commensurate reductions in federal staffing.
You don't have to vilify President Obama as a Kenyan socialist to recognize that his policies are reorienting the country toward more dependence on the federal government. Through most of the past half century, the federal government has spent about one dollar in five of national income. Right now, it's spending about one in four. If Barack Obama is reelected and his policies are continued, that one-dollar-in-four ratio will harden into permanent reality, on the way to one dollar in three, with state and local spending on top of that.
Every president since the late 1970s has struggled to contain the growth of government, Democrats as well as Republicans. Jimmy Carter battled Democrats in Congress to stop wasteful construction projects. He signed the deregulation of airlines, trucking, and rail. Bill Clinton announced that "the age of big government is over," signed welfare reform, and accepted budgets that reduced government spending as a share of national income.
Barack Obama is the first president since Lyndon Johnson to push aggressively for bigger and more interventionist government--and not merely as an emergency measure against the …