In Tuesday night's debate, President Barack Obama was asked what misperception about himself he would most like to dispel. His answer? That he was someone who believed "government creates jobs, that that somehow is the answer." On the contrary, Obama said. "That's not what I believe. I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world's ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded."
After his now-famous 'you didn't build that' verdict on small businesspeople and entrepreneurs, it's obvious why Obama would want to restyle himself as a devotee of the private sector, a disciple of the marketplace. The trouble comes when he actually starts talking about markets and economics.
Take last Tuesday night's exchange on energy policy. Romney alluded to the doubled price of gasoline during Obama's term—seeking to tar the president with consumers' pain at the pump. Obama retorted with a market-based explanation: with the economy in free-fall when he took office energy demand was obviously way down so prices were much lower. Rising gasoline prices reflect the rising demand of a (supposedly) recovering economy. Score one for Obama. A glimmer of recognition of the marketplace at work.
But a few seconds later, challenged by Mitt Romney about his administration's sharp curtailment of energy exploration permits and leases on federal lands, Obama first tried to claim credit for growing overall U.S. energy production—on private lands—for which his policies were in no way responsible. Romney called him on it. Nice try, Mr. President.
But then Obama went on to explain that he determined to apply a 'use it or lose it' rule to oil and gas exploration permits on federal lands. If the oil companies didn't invest and develop their concessions, Obama decided to take them away. But whether and when a concessionaire decides to develop an energy lease and begin producing is largely a function of the marketplace. Will the prevailing, and projected, price of oil or gas make an investment in developing a new well or field profitable? If so, it gets developed; if not, oil companies wait until market conditions justify the investment.
But, judging from his answer, Obama thinks like a fair number of populist/socialist leaders in Latin America and elsewhere in the third world on this point. Companies should invest in and develop energy properties, not when market conditions make them profitable, but when politicians find their benefits—jobs, revenue, improved supply conditions, export earnings—useful. No appreciation for the market there, Mr. President. That's pure command economy-style thinking.
Vice President Joe Biden displayed a similarly inconsistent mentality—this time regarding U.S. intelligence and national security—in his debate the previous week. At one point, Biden took a break from his manic giggling to assure Americans that, when it comes to Iranian nuclear weapons development, we will know—our intelligence services will tell us—when Iran reaches the critical threshold of developing an actual weapon. And we'll know in plenty of time to stop them.
Never mind that this requires a highly accurate ability to predict the future. Never mind all of Iran's efforts to prevent the outside world knowing exactly what they are up to. Never mind Iran's secret, concealed, buried nuclear facilities and its careful control of international inspectors' exposure to them. We will know, claims Uncle Joe.
Then, minutes later—practically in the same breath—Vice President Biden blames this same U.S. intelligence community for the Obama administration's misleading attribution of the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to a local reaction to a provocative, anti-Islamic YouTube video trailer. In this case, the U.S. intelligence community wasn't up to the challenge of accurately determining what had happened or what was happening. But when it came to predicting when, precisely, Iran would cross the threshold to nuclear weapons, our intel community would 'nail it.' (Just like they did with India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iraq—right?!)
No wonder we can almost hear the strains of the William Tell Overture playing in the background as the mainstream media rides to Obama's rescue, with soft-ball appearances last week on David Letterman and Jon Stewart's Daily Show. If this is the best that foreign policy and national security expert Joe Biden and self-professed private sector groupie Barack Obama can manage, they need all the help they can get from their friends.
Few listeners probably paid close enough attention to the debates to tease out these inconsistencies. But when you think about them, it does make you wonder: how stupid do these guys really think we are? One minute the intel community will save us; the next minute, it can't predict yesterday's weather. When markets work for us one minute, we're all for them; we pretend to understand and respect them. But when, the next minute, market results are politically inconvenient, disregarding market discipline and intervening comes as naturally as breathing.
So how stupid do Obama and Biden and their team think we are? The answer, I fear, is very. After all, a majority of Americans already elected them once.