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Opinion: Columnists

Noemie Emery: Mount Rushmore on hold

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Barack Obama, who in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing, is now called a great man by some of his backers for having done not too much more. He was re-elected, but by millions of votes fewer than the last time -- the first time a president won re-election while falling in favor relative to the opposite side.

Most people felt the country was on the wrong track and doubted things would get better. General Motors is (barely) alive but not getting better. Osama bin Laden is dead, but al Qaeda isn't. His triumphs thus far don't seem that triumphant. Carter he isn't, but he isn't Reagan, either. Put the plans for Mount Rushmore on hold.

Point No. 1 in the case made for greatness is that he stopped the panic from becoming a major depression. It's not all that clear that he did. If the brakes were slammed, it was probably the TARP bill that did it.

The stimulus went to the president's friends and did little to stir private-sector investments. Billions were lost on green energy projects, while he shut down the Keystone pipeline and waged war on coal and oil. Unemployment stayed under 9 percent, only because so many stopped looking for work altogether. "What does a president have to do these days to get his face chiseled into a mountainside?" asked Jill Lawrence, in a giddy piece called "Obama Has Already Cemented His Legacy." Well, maybe a little bit better than that.

Point No. 2 in this unassailable masterpiece is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the perfect example of a horse designed by a committee, a prize package studded with time bombs, ticking and primed to go off. Bomb No. 1 is the state exchanges, to which Republican governors have been saying, "No, thank you," and which the federal government may not be able to staff on their own. Bomb No. 2, as George Will reminds us, is the one planted by Chief Justice John Roberts, when he saved Obamacare last summer by calling the individual mandate to buy health insurance a "tax." As Will says, "The penalty for refusing to purchase insurance counts as a tax" only if it is too small to compel mass compliance, and it simply cannot be raised. If enough people refuse to pay into the system, the cost of expanding insurance becomes unsustainable, and the program blows up.

Bomb No. 3 is the incentive to fire (or to not hire, or to cut back on hours) that its drafters built into the plan. The mandate to provide insurance to all workforces over the number of 50 is causing employers to lay people off, not hire new ones, or to turn full-time employees into part-timers instead. "Many colleges are cutting back on the number of hours worked by adjunct professors in order to avoid new requirements that they provide health care to anyone working over 30 hours per week," as Walter Russell Mead tells us, noting that "70 percent of professors work as adjuncts, and many will have to cope with a major pay cut just as requirements that they buy their own health insurance go into effect."

In short, the Affordable Care Act may blow itself up, but not before it reverses the fragile recovery that was just enough to get Obama elected. The cement in his legacy may be around his own feet.

Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."

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Noemie Emery

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The Washington Examiner