Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known as “Joe the Plumber,” passed away from pancreatic cancer this week. For those too old to remember him, Wurzelbacher, 49, became a minor political celebrity during the 2008 presidential race when he confronted Barack Obama, surely the most coddled candidate until that time, about his far-left economics.
Wurzelbacher, who worked at a small plumbing company near Toledo, believed that Obama’s redistributive policies would hurt small businesses. It was clear enough that the Democratic Party’s candidate was intent on instituting as much top-down federally managed economic control as possible. This was obvious.
Wurzelbacher’s question sparked plenty of ginned-up indignation from the left. As Byron York noted at the time, if Joe the Plumber had any unsavory events in his past, we were probably going to find out soon enough. Indeed, the same press that had allowed Obama to fabricate much of his life story jumped into action. ABC News reported that Wurzelbacher owed $1,200 in taxes, The New York Times reported that he wasn’t actually a licensed plumber, and so on.
Obama would answer Wurzelbacher’s accusation over the next couple of weeks with a torrent of platitudes and strawmen. It was clear the soon-to-be president believed we were a nation awash in breathtaking greed, inequality, and exploitation. By 2011, in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, Obama dropped the pretense and made a progressive case against markets, which he called a “simple” ideology 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.” Today, regrettably, this kind of statist rhetoric runs the partisan gamut.
Obama was interested in transforming America into something distinct and new. Democrats viewed Obama as a counterrevolutionary against Reaganism. And, whereas Reagan promised Americans the power to build their own shiny cities on hills, Obama promised endless dependency and handouts. So they were right.
Still, the system stood in his way. After failing to quasi-nationalize the energy market, Obama decided to quasi-nationalize the health care system and transform it into a tool of social change.
Obamacare was a disaster. Not merely as policy, though that was bad enough. It was the first time consequential national reform had been instituted by a single political party, without any buy-in from half the country. Then again, the specifics mattered little to Obama, who repeatedly ignored his own law over the next six years. All that mattered was getting bureaucrats and technocrats further inside the system. Once they’re in, they never leave.
But the process also poisoned D.C. for the foreseeable future. Since that day, we barely have a functioning Congress. Every major reform is now rammed through in the same corrosive, partisan way.
The ACA, a policy success for the statist left, had electoral repercussions. Democrats would lose somewhere around 1,000 seats over the next two election cycles. It was then that Obama began acting like a king: the first post-war president to openly justify executive overreach for the sole purpose of working around the duly-elected lawmaking branch of government. If Congress “failed to act” as Obama desired, the president could simply sign a decree.
Senate in recess? Who cares? Obama packed the National Labor Relations Board to push anti-market policies. (The Supreme Court would unanimously rule that it was illegal. No president had a history of losing in the Supreme Court like Obama.) Congress didn’t want to pass a law giving young illegals legal status? So what? Obama — who had on 22 occasions said he didn’t possess the power to do it — declared it so. Congress didn’t want to pass more gun restrictions? Well, Obama did it anyway. And on and on it went. Even when Republicans won elections, it seemed, nothing really changed. Obama ruled the nation by regulatory regime and pen. That frustration surely contributed to the rise of Donald Trump.
Today, legislators not only applaud but beseech presidents to ignore their own branch of government and act unilaterally — on immigration, on the border, on guns, on student loans, on everything. That is Obama’s legacy.
This summer, Christiane Amanpour interviewed the former president … and, oh my, the cringy softball questions were back. What did it mean to defend “democracy,” the patronizing host asked Obama. Well, he explained, it meant a “belief in self-governance and rule of law and independent judiciary and the free press.”
Let’s remember, this is the same Obama who called the independent judiciary an “unelected group of people” who “overturn a duly constituted and passed law” when he feared he wouldn’t get his way. Though he was as undistinguished a constitutional law professor as he was a senator, Obama knew well that the Supreme Court’s job was to adjudicate the constitutionality of laws — whether they are duly passed or not. Yet for years he attempted to bully the courts in unprecedented ways.
After SCOTUS upheld the First Amendment in Citizens United, for example, Obama famously rebuked justices during his State of the Union, claiming they had “reversed a century of law.” This kind of behavior probably doesn’t seem like a big deal in an era when highly funded activist groups work to delegitimize the judiciary or people like Chuck Schumer stand on the Supreme Court steps and threaten sitting justices, but it was extraordinary at the time. That too is Obama’s legacy.
The contemporary left turn from liberalism was solidified by Obama, who had little use for constitutional limits on state power. So having Obama lecture anyone about “democracy” is just galling. The Obama administration spied on the “free press,” spied on ordinary American citizens, spied on and targeted political enemies, spied on the Senate, blew up American citizens without a trial, and helped concoct the most successful political hoax in American history. You could write a book about the corrosive illiberalism normalized under his rule. Obama was no moderate, as so many of his supporters like to portray him. He merely did as much as he could get away with — which was a ton.
And, well, Wurzelbacher’s death reminded me of it all.