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Can Obama Restore Our Belief in Government?

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009; Page A19

President Obama's message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over. So, too, is the folklore of a marketplace capable of producing abundance without regulation, government oversight or public intervention. Addressing the deepest crisis of confidence in the market system since the Great Depression, Obama argued that the economic downturn, far from being an excuse for backing away from his ambitious plans, makes his proposals in health care, energy and education imperative.

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"I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity," Obama declared, echoing generations of American progressives before him. "For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas."

Like Franklin Roosevelt, Obama sought to restore the public's faith that the private economy would recover by bolstering confidence in government's capacity to act rationally, creatively and efficiently. Yet he insisted that he was not seeking government action for the purpose of expanding government itself.

He called for a massive stimulus plan, he said, "not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't" but because failing to do so would have "cost more jobs and caused more hardships."

But he also promised that his energetic approach to government would continue. In particular, he argued that health-care reform was an economic and fiscal necessity, not simply a moral imperative on behalf of the uninsured. The new math of health care creates new possibilities, presidential aides said, rooted in a new consensus for reform across ideological lines.

"We want to get health care done this year," Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in an interview. "Not only because that's a key fiscal objective, but also because a lot of forces are coming together to get it done."

Obama also endorsed at least a year of post-high school education for all Americans to prepare them for the rigors of a tougher, more competitive labor market and pressed his arguments that future prosperity depends on a greener, more energy-efficient economy. Here again he was invoking the American progressive promise that government action could ignite the dynamism of an enterprise economy.

Obama lieutenants said that even as he made the case for public action, the president was mindful of the public's skepticism about government's capacity and its anger over the use of government money to bail out the very financial institutions that helped trigger the downturn.

That is why the president touted the spending cuts in the budget he will release Wednesday. It is also why he felt obligated to defend, again, his $787 billion stimulus plan. "I know there are some in this chamber and watching at home who are skeptical of whether this plan will work," he said. "I understand that skepticism. Here in Washington, we've all seen how quickly good intentions can turn into broken promises and wasteful spending. And with a plan of this scale comes enormous responsibility to get it right."

Aware that it is battling anti-government assumptions that are deeply rooted after a long conservative era, the administration will campaign to demonstrate that the stimulus money is being spent wisely and on programs the public sees as worthy. "We have to win this fight on the stimulus package," said one official, noting that getting the legislation passed was only the first battle. Ultimately, he said, a public reeling under rising unemployment rates will need to be convinced that government is actually improving its lot.

In just over a month in office, the president has pursued two goals that, conventionally speaking, seem at odds. Again and again, he has reached out to conservatives and Republicans with White House invitations and promises to incorporate their best ideas in his own plans. Yet at the same time, he has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation.

Tuesday night's speech was the most comprehensive manifesto he has offered yet for his new rendezvous with America's progressive tradition. "We will rebuild," he declared, "we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." If he is right, he will also have rebuilt American liberalism.

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