Dramatic developments in Europe in the past few weeks have graphically demonstrated the importance of America’s upcoming November 2 elections. Coming midway through President Obama’s term, there is little doubt these elections constitute a referendum on his philosophy, policies and performance.
Any U.S. citizens who doubt the significance of their impending votes need only contemplate Europe to see the consequences of further pursuing the Obama agenda.
Riots in the streets recently greeted French President Sarkozy’s proposal to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62. Although starting with the trade unionists, university students soon joined, in “worker-student” demonstrations reminiscent of late 1960’s Europe.
Just four years ago, France’s students rioted because they dreaded “précarité,” or insecurity concerning their employment prospects. They wanted guaranteed lifetime jobs, preferably in the public sector, rather than the indignity and “précarité” of pursue their own careers.
This past May, violent demonstrations in Greece reflected virulent opposition to cutbacks in welfare and other national subsidies, required because Greece’s profligate government spending, in violation of European Union (“E.U.”) fiscal rules, threatened the viability of the common European currency. Although fears for the Euro’s future have receded, the E.U.’s fundamental structural problems remain unresolved, so the risks of future instability remain still provoke sporadic outbursts of rioting in Athens.
Now, although France’s Senate approved changing the retirement age, the stability of Sarkozy’s government remains very much in question. Ironically, he came to office pledging far more sweeping, market-oriented changes in France’s economy. If he retreats on even minimal reforms like the retirement-age question, however, his entire presidency may end in failure.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron’s new government has just announced stringent budget cuts to reverse decades of massive deficit spending. These reductions are equivalent to or steeper than Margaret Thatcher’s when she took office in 1979, and will cause sweeping revisions in the excessive expectations many Britons have from their government. Nearly 500,000 public sector employees will be eliminated, and the pension-eligibility age will rise from 65 to 66. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said dramatically to the House of Commons, “Today is the day when Britain steps back from the brink, when we confront the bills of a decade of debt.”
British public opinion is still developing, but Cameron and his government openly campaigned for these policies in the last election. Disturbingly for Americans, his budget includes deep reductions in Britain’s defense budget, cuts so severe that many worry about London’s ability to sustain its leading role in NATO, and its long-standing place as Washington’s principal military ally.
In fact, the typical reaction of U.S. defense experts has been “it could have been worse,” which is cold comfort, especially with the conflict against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan reaching a potentially dispositive point.
These striking developments in Europe emphasize both how hard it is to withstand the endless expansion of the state’s role in civil society, and how hard it is to roll back even failed and financially debilitating statist policies. Public expectations become entrenched, citizens become dependent and attached to their benefits, which come to be seen as “entitlements,” and the steps necessary to redress the balance can be painful.
With considerable justification, therefore, American voters now see the impending November 2 elections as enormously consequential for their future. The individual races effectively embody a stark choice: whether to begin the daunting task of turning the United States back toward its founding principles, or whether to descend further into the status of European social democracies like France and Greece.
President Obama’s nationalization of two of America’s largest automobile manufacturers, his massive European-style health-care reform, and his extravagant Federal spending increases, had little or nothing to do with recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. Although justified on that basis, Obama’s agenda was in fact an ideologically-driven, highly opportunistic strategy to fundamentally change the structure and direction of American society. With substantial majorities in Congress, his objectives seemed easily within reach.
But unfortunately for Obama and the commentators who worship him, America never stopped being a center-right nation.
The public increasingly believes that Obama’s stimulus spending has not stimulated; his increased tax, government spending and regulation burdens are substantially impeding our hopes of recovery; and his unprecedented extension of the federal government’s economic role is utterly unjustifiable.
Obama’s response is visibly schizophrenic, promising more of the same if he avoids electoral disaster next week, while simultaneously implying he has “learned his lesson,” and will be less radical going forward.
How the United States votes on November 2 is thus an important test, but in themselves these midterm elections alone cannot be dispositive. The real test will come when Obama seeks re-election in 2012. Then too, events in Europe may well highlight the choices and widely divergent options Americans will face.
John R. Bolton, a former ambassador to the U.N., is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Fox News contributor. He is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).