After President Clinton took a drubbing from voters in the 1994 Congressional election, he realized his policies weren't working. He promptly declared, "The era of big government is over," and he then went about making good on that declaration:
• He reduced spending by a miraculous 3 and a half percent of GDP.
• He attacked entitlement spending and abolished the ballooning open-ended welfare system.
• He signed what amounted to the biggest capital gains tax cut in American history.
• He delivered the only four budget surpluses in four decades.
• And he produced a period of prolonged economic expansion.
President Obama faced a similar crossroad as he delivered his fourth State of the Union Address to Congress. If he had followed the example of his successful Democratic predecessor, he could have redeemed his presidency, revived the economy and rallied the country. Instead, he succumbed to the basic ingredient of hubris: that the more we invest in our mistakes, the less willing we are to correct them.
Instead, his fourth State of the Union Address was indistinguishable from the three before it - the same big government bromides that have utterly failed to revive the economy while squandering trillions of dollars of the nation's wealth.
For two full years, lopsided Democratic majorities in Congress responded to eerily similar addresses by giving him everything he asked for, including the biggest single spending bill in history that he promised would keep the unemployment rate under eight percent.
His fourth State of the Union speech came on the 35th consecutive month of unemployment rates over eight percent - unemployment rates that would be still higher except that millions of Americans have simply given up looking for work and therefore are no longer counted among the unemployed.
Indeed, fewer Americans are working today than on inauguration day 2009. In pursuing these policies, he has piled up as much debt in three years as the nation acquired from the first day of the George Washington administration to the last day of the George H. W. Bush administration and destroyed America's Triple-A credit rating.
True, Mr. Obama inherited a terrible mess caused by his predecessor. George W. Bush went on his own spending and borrowing binge to "stimulate" the economy. He approved the biggest expansion of entitlement spending since the Great Society. He intervened in the housing market by guaranteeing that struggling taxpayers would bail out banks from their bad decisions. He ran up crippling budget deficits (that now seem quaint by today's standards). Yet instead of reversing these disastrous policies, Barack Obama has spent the last three years doubling down on them, and he showed no interest in changing course in the final year of his term.
Ronald Reagan inherited an economy plagued by double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, mile-long lines around gas stations and interest rates at 21 percent. He told the country, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem - government IS the problem."
Reagan reduced the tax and regulatory burdens that were crushing the economy and produced a period of prolonged economic expansion and prosperity. Former Sen. Phil Gramm recently estimated that if the economy under Obama tracked as it had under Reagan, 15.7 million more Americans would be working today and per capita income would be over $4,000 higher than it is today.
Nor was Reagan a pioneer. Warren Harding, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, pursued similar policies and produced similar results. If Barack Obama had presented a comparable vision, he would have had the enthusiastic support of the Republican majority in the House and a year from now could claim the mantle of leadership in putting the nation back on the road to prosperity.
Instead, what he prescribed is guaranteed to produce gridlock, finger-pointing and sniping, as his combative tone clearly signaled is his intention. That's a tragic waste of an entire crucial year when we could be implementing policies to relieve our economy of the burdens that are crushing it - just as a Democratic president working with a Republican Congress did during the Clinton years.
Whittier's words haunt the country in the aftermath of this lost opportunity: "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'it might have been.' "
Tom McClintock represents Congressional District 4 of California.