In Government We Trust?

In Government We Trust?

By Daniel Henninger - August 20, 2009

To explain why the Obama health-care proposal pitched the nation's politicians into town-hall hell, we would like to call to the stand an expert on how things in life can sometimes go wrong-Mr. Billy Joel.

Using a song years ago to sort through the complexities of a relationship in trouble, the Piano Man repeated the same simple one-word truth: "It's a matter of trust."

Instead of whining about conspiracies, the average congressman getting yelled at this summer by his own constituents might ask: How come these people don't trust me?

The Democratic leadership and the progressive left think the town halls emerged from the electric fog of conservative talk shows, but the Obama proposal since early June never had an organized opposition. It has been sinking beneath its own weight. It is the weight of doubtful government.

Recall that soon into the Obama presidency it was written, if not put to music, that this new moment marked the reversal of the Reagan legacy.

One such springtime account began: "Ronald Reagan used to joke that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' Barack Obama is making those words welcome."

No he's not. The public reaction to the health-care proposal, evident both in public-opinion polls and town halls, tells us that the misgivings Ronald Reagan identified 25 years ago remain a potent factor in American politics. There's a reason why the United States motto on the back of its currency reads "In God We Trust," not the other G-word.

The left likes to say that conservatives hate government. The truth, and it holds for many people beyond conservatism, is closer to what Alfred Hitchcock said when he was accused of hating the police. "I'm not against the police," Hitchcock said, "I'm just afraid of them."

Congress's approval rating sits at 30%. This is a remarkable vote of no confidence in the representative branch of a national government.

In California and New York, the two most economically important and famous of the 50 states, the legislatures have been revealed as incompetent to manage the public's money. The budget crises in California and New York aren't just a normal turn in the fiscal cycle. Those governments have finally hit the wall.

Oblivious to manifest failure, the liberal-progressive idea keeps itself afloat on intellectual water wings-insisting that most people still believe that if government commits itself to accomplishing a public good, it will more or less succeed despite the difficulties and inefficiencies of these great projects. Needed good gets done.

That civics-book faith in the good intentions of government has been on the bubble with a broad swath of the American people who don't know left from right but only public performance. The Obama health-care proposal arrived at a particularly bad moment to be asking voters to "trust us."

By the time Barack Obama entered the White House, the exploding of the housing bubble had covered the landscape with the bodies of bankers, brokers and politicians who'd promised people a yellow-brick road lined with houses sold with fairy-tale down payments. Then the gods delivered a final lesson in misplaced trust: the Madoff Ponzi scheme.

I believe Madoff's massive and destructive breach of trust had an effect on the public mind that carried beyond the tragedy of its immediate victims. After Madoff, John Q. Public set the bar really high for anyone seeking a big commitment of trust with money. But that's exactly what the ambitious Obama health plan did.

President Obama in his public pleas for the plan appears to be truly upset that his benign view of it isn't obvious to all. In his op-ed Sunday for the New York Times he said, "We'll cut hundreds of billions in waste and inefficiency in federal health programs like Medicare and Medicaid." Hundreds of billions? Just like that? This is nothing but an assertion by one man. It's close to Peter Pan telling the children that thinking lovely thoughts will make them fly.

Most people are aware that the big three entitlements we've got are underfunded. Medicaid is wrecking state budgets, Medicare goes broke in eight years, followed by the flatlining of Social Security.

King Canute ordered the tides to recede to prove to his courtiers that his powers were limited. President Obama appears to believe he can reverse the tides of entitlement. What evidence has government given to allow anyone to believe this?

The White House is suggesting that Mr. Obama in the fall will state the "moral imperative" beneath a federal expansion of health insurance. As one Democratic strategist told this newspaper: "You've got to call on the better angels out there."

These people seem to think that if a popular president can just find the right way to describe this entitlement, the American people will take his word for it. Maybe there was a time when a strong presidential personality could sell big things. Those days are gone. The government frittered them away.

President Obama has been saying lately, "This isn't about me." That's right. That's his problem.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
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