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Make Haste Slowly By: Victor Davis Hanson
The Washington Times | Monday, November 10, 2008


Festina lente. Make haste slowly. That was the motto of the revolutionary-minded young Augustus who soon grasped that he needed to build upon Rome's past, rather than dismantle it.

Amid the celebration of the historic victory of Barack Obama, the country should now quit the bickering, appreciate a fair and peaceful transference of power, and unite behind its new commander in chief.

But in turn our new President Obama would do well to heed that ancient Roman wisdom, appreciating that the real world after Nov. 4 is not exactly the same as its frequent caricature during the hard-fought campaign.

John McCain promised to cut taxes on all. Mr. Obama promised to raise them on some. But neither plan fully appreciated that we are now buried deep under trillions of dollars of debt - and need both more revenue and less expenditure.

An Obama administration, like it or not, must cede to the laws of physics: America will have to pay down debt while not raising taxes too high at a time of recession. That balancing act will make it hard to borrow additional billions for more promised federal spending.

"Hope and change" may have implied an easy transition to our clean, cool solar and wind future. But for a while longer, America's envisioned new electric cars will still require old-fashioned natural gas, coal and nuclear power to generate electricity to charge them.

Economic slowdown, conservation and public promises to drill more oil and natural gas have already helped to collapse world oil prices and saved us billions. And before we talk of ending the coal industry, we should thank our lucky stars that America has the world's most plentiful supply of coal to transition us to alternate sources of energy.

We need more regulation of both Wall Street and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which all went feral and turned on us during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Yet European leaders are faced with far worse financial meltdowns than we are - and their problems have nothing to do with American excess or George Bush.

The dollar is climbing against the Euro because market analysts realize that for all our sins, American financial institutions are still far less exposed than those elsewhere in the world, and our free-market system far more flexible to recover from excess and grow the economy.

Some have called for the Wall Street bailout to be just the first, rather than the last, large federal takeover of American finance. But again, we should remember that despite a looming recession, Americans are still collectively the most affluent and free citizens in the world - precisely because our unique free-market system creates enormous wealth and draws in more capital and talent than elsewhere on promises of commensurate individual rewards. President Obama need not give radical chemotherapy to an ill economy that does not have a fatal cancer.

The shooting war in Iraq is ending. President Obama can continue to withdraw American troops slowly on the basis of a growing victory, rather than rashly and harnessed to an artificial timetable. In time, a Democratic administration could assert that a constitutional government in Iraq and an unprecedented defeat of al Qaeda in the heart of the ancient caliphate enhanced U.S. security at home and abroad - and are achievements to be claimed rather than simply reckless acts to be abruptly abandoned.

For all the campaign charges of unfairness, America currently has the most progressive tax system in the world, in which the top 5 percent of wage earners pay over 60 percent of all federal income taxes. President Obama will raise rates, as promised. Yet he might consider that Americans in the past came to accept the Clinton income tax hike to 40 percent on the top bracket - but may well balk at adding unprecedented increases in payroll taxes on top of all that. That combination could mean a sizable tax raise on many of those self-employed who already pay nearly half their income in various taxes - and gut rather than just shear the sheep.

Mr. Obama himself ran a shrewd campaign that largely repudiated his hard-left past by severing ties with dubious former associates while reassuring voters by moving to the center on issues from NAFTA to offshore drilling. Like the young emperor Augustus, Mr. Obama may well have sensed that a country eager for change was still a largely traditional and centrist society - as this election's relatively close popular vote reflected.

If a President Obama remembers all that now in the beginning of his presidency, later on he won't have to scramble to recapture lost popular support with a new Dick Morris and the old Clintonian playbook of triangulation.


Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A War Like No Other" (Random House).


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