By Jeff Greenfield
So what’s the President’s toughest task as he tries to turn his proposals into policy? Is it the House Republican majority? A Senate Republican minority prepared to subject virtually every piece of legislation (and a fair chunk of nominations) to a filibuster? Deficits and a massive debt that sharply limit what Washington can do?
All are worthy candidates. But if I read the State of the Union speech right, the White House seems to recognize a far more fundamental dilemma, one that has plagued Democrats for the better part of the last half-century. It’s how to make credible again a simple assertion: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.
For decades now, that sentence has been—literally—a punch line. Ronald Reagan called the statement “the most terrifying words in the English language.” It’s also one of the answers to the question, “what are the three biggest lies in the world?” (Never mind the other two, this is a family-friendly site).
But for decades, the notion that government was there to help was something most Americans would have found credible.
For those who came of age in the 1930s through the early 1960s, government put people to work in the depths of the Great Depression, brought electricity to the farms, cabins, and shacks of rural America, tamed rivers with the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams, mobilized the country to defeat the Nazis, lent the money to turn us into a nation of homeowners, sent millions of veterans to college, built the Interstate Highway System and sent men into space. This track record may be why, in 1964, polls showed that three-quarters of Americans trusted the government to do what was right most of the time.
A decade and a half later—after a war in southeast Asia became a quagmire, a White House turned into a criminal conspiracy, rampant inflation, and the permanent stagnation of middle-class income—barely a quarter of American expressed that same trust in government.
That’s why by 1981, Ronald Reagan could proclaim: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem—government is the problem.” By 1996, a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, could pronounce at a State of the Union, “the era of big government is over.”
Yes, President Obama was at pains to say “it's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad based growth." But the specifics he offered demonstrated a clear faith that public resources and public direction are key to providing universal pre-school, health care, environmental protection, more jobs, and shelter from the storm of gun violence.
Conservatives may worship Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” but for Obama, the helping hand comes in large measure from the public, not the private sector.
To call this “socialism” is to do violence to the word and to the concept. To call it “un-American” is a smear. As E.J. Dionne demonstrated in his recent book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” the U.S. has always embraced both the concept of strong individualism and an active role for government. If Obama’s vision of the public sector is socialism, then so too were the visions of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
What is true, however, is that much of the country’s loss of faith in government has been justified.
Those we’ve elected to lead us have been unable to keep us out of wars, and unable to win them. They’ve been unable to balance a budget, unable to spend in a way that promotes economic growth, unable to promote broad-based economic progress, and unable to oversee an entitlement system that does not threaten bankruptcy.
The inevitable result of this track record is a view of government that has gone from the traditional American skepticism to something closer to instinctive cynicism.
It’s as if the nation has a default answer to Obama’s most fundamental message: “Yes we can?” “No, you can’t.”
November’s election suggested a majority—a thin majority, to be sure—was prepared to give the president the benefit of the doubt about his stewardship of his first four years. Whether he can convince the country once again to accept the idea that “he’s from the government he’s here to help” may well be the root challenge of the next four years.