President Obama fashions himself as a 21st-century counterpart to his Democratic predecessors Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. But seven months into his second term, the 44th president is not offering Americans anything like a New Deal or New Frontier.
No, the Obama legacy has little to do with reenergizing the American economy or advancing American greatness. It's about enlarging the welfare state, growing the dependency class, and squeezing Middle America. Granted, these developments predate Obama and even George W. Bush, but rather than reversing the ominous trajectory, the Obama administration has escalated it.
From the Affordable Care Act to his expansion of food stamps - an assistance program that imposes no work requirements - and his gutting of those commonsense conditions from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the president has focused on putting more Americans on the dole, not into jobs. Indeed, his administration has prioritized welfare "outreach" - extensive marketing campaigns that cajole targeted populations, including noncitizens and the middle class, to sign up for all sorts of public freebies, including Medicaid, food stamps, and, now, Obamacare.
Keep in mind: Obama's signature legislative act is nothing more than a welfare scheme dressed up as health-care reform. Its central aim is to move millions of Americans into Medicaid, the means-tested program most in need of overhaul, or state exchanges, another bureaucratic monstrosity amounting to a complicated version of subsidized health insurance.
Even before fully implementing Obamacare, the president has driven annual federal and state means-tested welfare expenditures over the $1 trillion threshold, boosting Medicaid enrollment nearly 20 percent to nearly 60 million Americans, and the food-stamp caseload 65 percent to 47 million.
In the meantime, job growth has moved the other way. Obama has created just 270,000 net new full-time jobs in 41/2 years, based on the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In fact, more than 2 percent fewer Americans, relative to the population, are employed full time than at the beginning of his presidency. The shocking result: The number of Americans living in households propped up by means-tested welfare (about 107 million in 2011, per latest Census Bureau data) is encroaching upon the number of Americans who are fully employed (about 112 million for the same time period). Meanwhile, extending a trend that has haunted the country for decades, median family income remains stagnant.
Sensitive to these shortcomings, Obama is quick to blame Bush and, since 2011, the House Republicans for holding the country back. Yet he seems unaware that his "welfare recovery" would never pass muster with FDR or JFK. In his 1935 State of the Union address, Roosevelt feared that his limited relief measures during the Depression would weaken the character of the country: "To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
Consequently, with the help of Frances Perkins, his labor secretary, FDR put his energies into creating jobs and rebuilding the labor market, especially for male breadwinners. Through the Works Progress Administration, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, Perkins and Roosevelt worked tirelessly to get Americans back to work, and, equally important, improve wages and working conditions. The socially conservative Perkins also helped establish the "American Standard," in which a single "family wage" job - not two low-wage jobs - could fully support the typical household.
This jobs focus enabled the country quickly shift into wartime mode in 1941. Moreover, in transforming American industry into the "arsenal of democracy" during World War II, FDR laid the foundations of continued U.S. advancements in science, technology, medicine, and health, fueling an unmatched postwar boom.
Likewise, JFK harbored no delusions that public welfare represented the promise of America. While the young president talked about combating poverty and floated the Medicare idea, Kennedy's Reagan-like tax-rate cuts, coupled with his go-to-the-moon imperative, extended the postwar glory to the early 1970s. Aside from its economic and technological dividends, the Apollo project represented a pride-inducing feat of American genius and engineering.
With a significantly smaller federal budget relative to GDP, JFK delivered more for the American working and middle classes - and the poor - in 34 months than Obama's welfare recovery has achieved in 55 months.
The lesson: Building the welfare-industrial complex may appease the political left and the bureaucrats, contractors, and providers who profit from running the system, but it won't make a transformational presidency on the order of FDR's or JFK's. Unless he reverses course quickly, Obama will go down in history as a betrayer, not an heir, of true Democratic ideals.