Americans have argued over government’s role since the days when politicians wore powdered wigs. Lately this great debate seemed more like a monologue. Conservatives denounce government with zest. But on this most basic of questions, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have been silent.
That began to change with Obama’s State of the Union last week, which sketched an appealing picture of government as an engine of economic innovation. He must do more to set out his vision, and persuade the public to go along.
We have always been ambivalent about what Thomas Paine called “a necessary evil.” But throughout the 20th century, liberals, if nothing else, stood for the idea that a strong government could be a force for good.
In his landmark 1932 Commonwealth Club speech, Franklin D. Roosevelt explained, “New conditions impose new requirements upon government” -- signaling a sharp expansion of Washington’s role, through the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Americans embraced this change from our traditionally distant central government.
Modern conservatism was born, in large measure, to repudiate that view. The tone was set in the first minutes of Ronald Reagan’s term, when he declared in his inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
Threat to Freedom
These assaults bit because they came at a time when government seemed unable to meet basic tests, from curbing crime to managing its own finances. It drew from many strands -- southern whites resentful of civil-rights laws, business people chafing at environmental rules -- but all cast strong central government as a threat to freedom.
Through the years, there have been hiccups and hesitations. George W. Bush neither ran nor governed as a foe of big government. But by the 2010 election, the Republican Party made a consistent, confident public argument. As Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said in his televised response to Obama’s State of the Union speech, “We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century.”
All this even though government in the U.S. still is much smaller than elsewhere. The federal government accounts for about a quarter of the economy. (That doesn’t count state and local levels.) In many other democracies, the public sector can account for as much as half of spending.
Shift Against Government
Nonetheless, the public largely buys the Republican critique. Numerous polls show a sharp shift against government.
Democrats take refuge in the famous study in 1967 by political scientists Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free, who found that Americans loathe big government yet crave its benefits. We are “operationally liberal” but “ideologically conservative.” So liberal politicians pound on specific programs. Here are some pharmaceuticals, seniors; there are some loans, students; let’s hope it adds up to majority. As for whether these goodies cohere into a vision of what government does, well, Democrats long have hoped nobody notices.
Obama tries hard to avoid the issue of government’s size and role. He used his inaugural address to chide “childish” politics, instead of spelling out an explicit political vision. When he had the public’s undivided attention, he never delivered an Oval Office address to explain the stimulus. (It was Richard Nixon, not Obama, who declared, “I am now Keynesian.”)
He talked about government’s role occasionally, such as in last year’s University of Michigan commencement address -- but rarely in more high-profile settings. Absent an overarching vision, the Democrats were reduced to pelting their midterm foes with nit-picky attack ads that were easily deflected.
Perhaps electoral losses forced a reassessment. This year, State of the Union listeners could discern a defense of government’s proper role. Obama didn’t merely envision a market that creates and distributes wealth, with government stretching a safety net to catch those who fall. Rather, government can help build the conditions for prosperity, as it did from canals in the 1800s to the Internet in the 1990s. As has been noted, this was an approach that echoed Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln. Obama cannily made budget cutting seem old-fashioned, even defeatist in the struggle for international economic gain.
But he must do much more. The next test will come in May, when Congress has to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling. The Republicans in Congress will try to force cuts. Obama must go beyond tagging individual programs to make the larger point about government’s role.
But Obama’s address hinted at something even more basic: Democrats must show they seek a more effective government, not a bigger one. Last week, Obama pledged a plan to reorganize overlapping agencies.
That’s nice. But fiddling with organization charts can be a placebo instead of actually taking action. Mock Al Gore’s reinventing government drive in the 1990s at your peril: It recognized that government had far to go to adopt basic corporate customer-service principles. Citizens who live in an iPhone economy will never trust a dial-up government.
Over coming months, Democrats must show they can grapple with the big questions. What is government’s function? What’s the ideal divide between the public sector and a robust private economy? When we want a social good -- say, clean air -- is the best approach command-and-control regulation, economic incentives, direct spending? How can we tap social media to modernize the public sector?
Until Democrats can argue for their vision of the role of government with self-confident gusto, they will never earn the trust of the public, nor should they.
Michael Waldman, former head speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the author of “My Fellow Americans.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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