As he promised it would be, Barack Obama's presidency has been transformative, but not as he intended. Whether it lasts two or six more years, it is an exhausted volcano because its biggest consequence may already have happened: It has resuscitated the right, making 2010 conservatism's best year in 30 years -- since the election of Ronald Reagan.
Republican gains were partly a result of the "shock-and-awe statism" (Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' phrase) of the health care legislation passed in March. Seven months later, a federal judge in Florida, hearing arguments about the constitutionality of penalizing Americans who do not purchase health insurance, was bemused.
Lawyers defending the legislation said that the fee noncompliant Americans would be forced to pay is really just a tax. But during congressional debate on the legislation, Democrats adamantly denied it was a tax. So in a rehearsal of an argument that will be heard by the Supreme Court, the judge said:
"Congress should not be permitted to secure and cast politically difficult votes on controversial legislation by deliberately calling something one thing, after which the defenders of that legislation take an 'Alice-in-Wonderland' tack and argue in court that Congress really meant something else entirely, thereby circumventing the safeguard that exists to keep their broad power in check."
Never miss a local story.
This year, two attempts to radically expand government supervision of Americans' behavior collapsed. One concerned regulating the political process, the other regulating the planet's climate.
In January, the Supreme Court again tormented reformers who are eager to empower government officials to ration speech about government officials. The court ruled that because the First Amendment proscribes laws limiting political speech, it proscribes laws that limit independent candidate-related advocacy by Americans organized as corporations. In 2007, the court had held that the First Amendment protects issue advocacy by corporations.
In his meretricious autumn campaigning, Obama told Americans that democracy was threatened by the amount of political speech the court empowered. Americans, however, are indifferent to arguments about process, which failing candidates talk about to avoid discussing their unpopular policies.
Last summer, The Economist noted that "the idea of a cap on America's carbon emissions died (in the Senate) with barely the bathos of a whimper." Although both Obama and John McCain endorsed the idea in 2008, Congress refused to be stampeded. This guarantees that the international climate conference that begins Nov. 29 in Cancun -- successor to the Copenhagen (2009), Kyoto (1997) and Rio (1992) failures -- will fail to do multitrillion-dollar injuries to global economic growth, and especially to America's growth, by producing a binding treaty limiting supposed climate-changing gases.
In 2010, Americans awakened to the fact that their financial future is much more precarious than they had understood. They realized they owe trillions for unfunded government employees' pension and medical benefits. Thus there suddenly emerged an issue that may dominate this decade's debate -- how the collaboration between government workers' unions and elected officials has looted state and municipal governments.
In January, New Jersey's new governor, Chris Christie, began concentrating attention on the process by which public sector unions prosper: They collect dues to spend electing their employers, who then hire more dues-paying union members who elect even more -- and even more compliant -- employers.
Unionized public employees now outnumber unionized private sector workers, so unions desperately desire "card check" legislation. It would make it easier to herd private sector workers into unions by abolishing the right to secret ballots in unionization votes. The 2010 elections made "card check" as dead as government subsidies for broadcast journalism may soon be.
As icing on conservatism's 2010 cake, there was NPR's self-immolation. It fired Juan Williams, ostensibly for speaking about certain feelings he has -- and deplores -- regarding some Muslims in some settings. NPR probably fired him because his views are too heterodox for some NPR liberals who favor diversity in everything but thought.
From its inception in 1967, as a filigree on Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in 1970 begat NPR, has been a solution in search of a problem. Forty-three years later, in the context of today's information cornucopia, "public" broadcasting -- its advocates flinch from candidly calling it government broadcasting -- is even sillier than would be a Corporation for Public Newspapers.
But in 2010, NPR became useful. It became conservatives' answer to the liberals' challenge: "Where precisely would you begin cutting government?"