Barack Obama & Jack Kemp

Barack Obama & Jack Kemp

“Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” So said President Obama to his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in the debate last week.

How odd all of this is. The foreign policy of the 1980s was stellar. It ended the Cold War, one of the singular accomplishments in the history of American leadership.

As for the social policies of the 1950s, lest we forget, these were precisely the ones so progressive and overbearing that they convinced Ronald Reagan to launch a career in politics. Federal spending on “Human Resources,” as the government calls it, on health, education, “income security,” and the like went up 95% in real terms from 1949 to 1960.

Reagan watched the march of federal do-goodism in the 1950s and felt compelled to push on from his job at General Electric and look for a foothold in politics. Reagan explained as much in his political debut, his noted speech at the 1964 Republican convention, “A Time for Choosing.”

Then there are “the economic policies of the 1920s.” Which would be the economic policies that accompanied the single most celebrated decade of American prosperity of them all.

This isn’t the first time Obama has put forth dubious historical propositions. Last December in a speech in Kansas he said all this:

“[T]oday, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what [Teddy Roosevelt] fought for in his last campaign [of 1912]: [including] a progressive income tax.

“Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune….If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes—especially for the wealthy—our economy will grow stronger….

“[I]t’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government….And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ’60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.”

These December 2011 remarks were puzzling on any number of counts. TR lost his last campaign, in the election of 1912, pretty badly in fact. Whatever he was “fighting for” went down hard at the polls.

As for “a certain crowd” gathering “just as there was in TR’s time” saying let’s “cut more taxes,” there was no income tax in 1912, in fact very little tax structure outside the tariff to begin with. And the tariff, as most history sophomores know, was a darling of big businessmen and the plutocracy. Was there really a “certain crowd” in 1912 calling for tax cuts, or is this a rhetorical device of the president’s—made up stuff?

Then, as I pointed out last year, there are the problems with this run of events: the “theory” of “just cut[ing] more regulations and…more taxes didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ’60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.”

First of all, this litany elides the example of the 1980s.

As goes the “decade before the Great Depression,” the point is obvious: it was not the Great Depression. So whatever policy was in place was satisfactory.

Now for: “It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the…’60s.” No tax cuts in the 1960s? The John F. Kennedy 30% across-the-board rate cuts, made law in 1964, so catalyzed the 1960s economy that a generation later, they inspired the Reaganites of the 1980s. The 1981 tax cut’s progenitor, Jack Kemp, modeled his work precisely on the JFK precedent. Jack French Kemp liked to marvel that he and his tax-cutting forbear had the same initials.

All this amounts to a terribly sorry record as goes this president’s ability to marshal the true facts of the history of the twentieth century—the American century no less. Perhaps Obama’s speechwriters are so taken by the surveys that suggest that the public is ignorant of history—those surveys of the man of the street showing that people can’t place the Civil War in the right century, that sort of thing. What’s a little carelessness with facts given an audience not prepared to catch a mistake?

But how difficult it is for someone who truly knows what’s going on to misrepresent things. Let’s chalk up the president’s totality of remarks on these issues to the readiest explanation: he knows not the great pageant of this nation’s economic history.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Originally published at, the essay is reprinted here with gracious permission of Brian Domitrovic.

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