October 17, 2013
President Obama addresses nation from the White House.
President Obama addresses nation from the White House. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

As is his custom, President Obama saved the most powerful part of his address to the nation about the government shutdown and the lifting of the federal debt limit for the end. That’s not to say that the rest of his message outlining the three things “we agree on and get some stuff done” wasn’t good. But his words on the role of government, particularly government workers, were superb.

Arguments over the size and role of the government pre-date the republic. And they’ll never stop as long as Democrats and Republicans hold differing views of both. But government has been seen as a hindrance at best, enemy at worst, for decades now. The sneers from Capitol Hill about “government bureaucrats” bolstered the impression that a faceless Washington was running roughshod over the people. If anything, as the president argued, the senseless 16-day government shutdown reacquainted Americans with their government and how much they rely on it. (Fast forward to 15:00)

“In fact, one of the things that I hope all of us have learned these past few weeks is that it turns out smart, effective government is important,” Obama said. “I think the American people, during the shutdown, had a chance to get some idea of all the things large and small that government does that make a difference in people’s lives.”

Most federal employees work very hard for little pay compared to what they could make in the private sector. And to make matters worse, they are rarely if ever thanked for what they do. The president changed that today.

I’ve got a simple message for all the dedicated and patriotic federal workers who’ve either worked without pay or have been forced off the job without pay these past few weeks, including most of my own staff: Thank you. Thanks for your service. Welcome back. … What you do is important, and don’t let anybody else tell you different, especially to the young people who come to this — this city to serve, believe that it matters. Well, you know what? You’re right. It does.

It was particularly telling that when the reality of the shutdown hit and constituents complained loudly about shuttered monuments, canceled veterans benefits and halted cancer research, to name a few, House Republicans moved fast to get them the funding they needed. For 16 days, they saw just how important government is. Whether that lesson will stick is another issue.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.