President Obama just tried to reframe the debate on the size of government and its limits

December 4, 2013

The era of big government may be over. But, the era of no government can't replace it.


US President Barack Obama speaks at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus December 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKIBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

That's the message President Obama delivered today in a speech that felt aimed squarely at defining (or re-defining) his views on the long-running debate about how much government we need and what it should do.

"Government can't stand on the sidelines," Obama told a crowd gathered at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "Government is us."  Earlier in his speech, which bore a striking topical and rhetorical resemblance to one he gave in Osawatomie, Kansas in 2011, Obama insisted: "We need to set aside the belief that government can't do anything about inequality."

Obama's speech came almost 18 years after the last Democratic president declared the era of big government over, a moment seen as a critical break with the New Deal-version of the Democratic party that had struggled to adapt to changing times.  Obama's speeches -- both in Kansas and today -- seem to be his attempt not to fundamentally alter Clinton's vision of what government can and should do but rather update and expand on it for the times.

In Obama's worldview, government over the past few decades has gotten a bad name. Here's Obama explaining himself:

It’s true that government cannot prevent all the downsides of the technological change and global competition that are out there right now -- and some of those forces are also some of the things that are helping us grow. And it’s also true that some programs in the past, like welfare before it was reformed, were sometimes poorly designed, created disincentives to work, but we’ve also seen how government action time and again can make an enormous difference in increasing opportunity and bolstering ladders into the middle class. Investments in education, laws establishing collective bargaining and a minimum wage -- these all contributed to rising standards of living for massive numbers of Americans.

Later in the speech, he returned to that same theme. "These programs are not typically hammocks for people to just lie back and relax," Obama said of unemployment insurance and other government programs like it. "These programs are almost always temporary means for hardworking people to stay afloat while they try to find a new job, or going to school to retrain themselves for the jobs that are out there, or sometimes just to cope with a bout of bad luck."

In short: Not all government is good. But not all government is bad either.

It's a delicate argument to make, particularly as the country grows more polarized and the tea party faction within the GOP continues to insist that the government that does least does best. Because the right role -- and place -- for government tends to be in the eye of the beholder, much of the argument Obama is making for the need for government will be viewed through the lens of how people view him. Democrats will agree, Republicans will disagree and independents won't pay enough attention for it to matter.

Public perception on how much government is enough government has held steady for quite some time -- with a majority favoring a smaller government that provides less services over a larger government that does more. Here's the trend on that question in Washington Post-ABC News polling:

Chart (14)

Obama acknowledged those political realities in his speech. "I realize we are not going to resolve all of our political debates over the best ways to reduce inequality and increase upward mobility this year or next year or in the next five years," he said."But it is important that we have a serious debate about these issues, for the longer that current trends are allowed to continue, the more it will feed the cynicism and fear that many Americans are feeling right now that they’ll never be able to repay the debt they took on to go to college, they’ll never be able to save enough to retire, they’ll never see their own children land a good job that supports a family."

Obama knows that the politics of the Congress -- and the country -- are simply not in a place where a single speech or a single policy proposal can change all that much. But, he also knows that the job of presidents are to try to outline a vision that extends well beyond the limits of eight years in office. This was a legacy speech.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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