During his State of the Union speech, Ronald Reagan got a surprise. It came when he said "We who are in government must take the lead in restoring the economy." He got a standing ovation--mostly from Democrats--who greeted it like yet another vow from Elizabeth Taylor that her next marriage will be her last. It's a nice sentiment, but hardly a realistic expectation.
With Reagan, in the same speech in which he cited government's role in restoring the country to economic health, he announced that he would cut the domestic budget even further. After announcing a spending freeze that would be fair to all, he said it would be a bit fairer to the Pentagon. After saying that the economy was in rotten shape (although on the mend), he said we would stay the course. Why quarrel with success?
In essence, he stuck to a script about an America that is not there. He talked about volunteers and "millions of Americans" who have rallied to the cause of the unemployed. He referred to "neighbors helping neighbors," which is nice when it happens, but no substitute for having a job. He painted a canvas of past crises that were worse than the present one, of noble and hardy Americans, and then he said the government should help, too--just like anyone else.
But the government is not like anyone else. It has the obligation Reagan mentioned in his throwaway line. It has an obligation to provide jobs and health insurance and to get the country moving again. It has an obligation to the aged and the sick and the unemployed and the young. It has an obligation to help them--not just to say that they should be helped.
There was, of course, lots of the old Reagan missing from the speech. Gone was the absolute belief that government was the enemy. Gone, too, was the companion belief that private enterprise--all by itself and just because it ain't government--could turn the economy around. Gone was any call for the balanced-budget amendment and gone were the standard denunciations of the Soviets and the pledge contained in last year's speech not to "conduct business as usual with the forces of oppression." Grain farmers, it turns out, are in no position to be choosy about their customers.
But a lot of the old Reagan remained, especially the view that we are all on some sort of wagon train heading west. He made suffering and privation sound un-American: "Yes, we still have problems, plenty of them. But it is just plain wrong, unjust to our country and unjust to our people, to let those problems stand in the way of the most important truth of all: America is on the mend."
But the problems that stand in the way of that truth are almost 11 million unemployed. They are people without work and increasingly without health insurance or unemployment compensation. They are people who have been robbed first of their job and then of their self-esteem and, in short order, of their health. They are not hazy concepts, but suffering people--cold, hungry and without hope. For them, the Reagan who told them the federal government owed them something offered yet another reiteration of the program they blame for their plight--and little else.
But the new phrases and words do more than disguise an old program. Terms like "structural," even though they have been used for years, have the ring of "unavoidable." They sound like "the weather" or "act of God"--something beyond anyone's control and for which no rational person could hold the president responsible. They cushion him from blame. But neither the words nor the program they disguise do much for the people he mentioned in his speech--the poor or the unemployed. You cannot both cut the budget and offer more help at the same time.
That is why the president was surprised when the Democrats applauded. He knew what he was saying. Any way he expressed himself, the message was the same. He might have cited government's obligation to the poor and the unemployed and even to getting the economy rolling again, but all he was offering was a rewrite of his old script. The plot remains unchanged and so, alas, does the ending.