Remember when somebody asked you what you wanted for your birthday, and without even having to think about it, you answered, "infrastructure?"
Neither do I. Nobody dreams of infrastructure—except, apparently, President Barack Obama.
The centerpiece of Obama's economic plan—and the basis for his reelection bid—is more government spending to boost hiring and jump-start the economy. At nearly every campaign stop, he calls for more stimulus money to fix roads and bridges, construct new railways, expand wireless networks and improve schools. "Let's put construction workers back to work doing what they do best, and that is rebuilding America," he saidrecently in Roanoke, Virginia.
This is odd, because voters show little enthusiasm for bigger government or more stimulus spending, as Obama must surely know. In a Pew poll from earlier this year, more people disapproved of the big 2009 stimulus plan than approved. Three years later, it seems unlikely that Obama will persuade them to believe otherwise. Americans on average estimate that 51 cents out of every dollar spent by Washington is wasted—the highest proportion since Gallup began such polling in 1979. Other polls show that voter concern over big government is at record highs.
Other Obama themes, meanwhile, go over much better with voters. Obama's proposal to raise taxes on wealthy Americans seems to be a winner, since those who favor higher taxes on the rich outnumber those opposed roughly two to one. His "fairness" doctrine doesn't seem to hurt with voters, and may help. Obama also seems to be stoking genuine concern about his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, by attacking him as a capitalist aristocrat out of touch with working people, which has coincided with slipping support for Romney among some voting groups.
Obama's big-government solutions, in fact, seem to smother more mainstream ideas. In his Roanoke speech, for example, Obama seemed to be on a populist roll, describing the humble circumstances he and his wife Michelle grew up in, talking about the frayed American Dream, insisting that the economy needs to grow from the "middle out" rather than the top down, and highlighting his plan to raise taxes on the top two percent of earners.
Then he started riffing on the virtues of government, and the trouble began. He told his audience that what made America great in the past were roads and bridges and dams and the G.I. bill and the moon program and the Internet, all funded in some measure by the federal government. That was around the time he uttered the one line from the speech that made news: "If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
If Obama was trying to drive off the small proportion of business owners who support him, he might have succeeded with that remark, which sounds like a putdown to people who worked 7 days a week and sacrificed vacations for years in order to build a business. Republicans will be recycling those words for months as evidence of Obama's hostility toward business. Obama could have simply gift-wrapped them and sent them express to the Republican National Committee.
Obama's fondness for government has caused other big gaffes, such as when he said that "the private sector is doing fine." Obama was making the point that private-sector employment has been rising, while the public sector has been shedding jobs. He's right about that, but obviously he blew it by suggesting that expanding government was a higher priority than adding more private-sector jobs.
Obama, in fact, is generally right about the important role government can play in setting conditions that allow private businesses to succeed and thrive. But this is a technical and boring argument that can't possibly get voters fired up. You could improve your home by investing in more insulation or more efficient windows, but you'd have a lot more fun if you revamped your kitchen or added a patio.
Personally, I know that it's important to have better infrastructure that makes commerce more efficient. But it makes me think of the endless construction and nightmarish delays on I-287 and other roads near my house. Obama would probably tell me to just be patient and trust that it's all for the best, in the long run. I'm not sure I'd buy it, especially if I were sitting in traffic for the umpteenth day in a row. That's how a lot of voters feel about Obama's economic plan.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.