IN SHORT, THINGS ARE coming along pretty well in the United States right now. There is, to be sure, a list of national failings to be addressed this year. But it would be unreasonable to think that the federal government can solve them all by itself. That, in Mr. Carter's view, is the state of the union. By conventional standards it was a dull speech, because it contained very little in the way of thrilling a new ventures and bugle calls to action. But that is precisely the point that makes this speech deeply interesting.
Mr. Carter is determined not to be a bugle-call President. He judges - and he is right - that most of the country is fed up with thrilling new federal ventures. Mr. Carter is now preaching the doctrine of limited government - and redefining the idea of the American presidency.
In the American scheme of government, power flows to the President in a crisis. Most of the men who have held the office understood that truth exquisitely well and ceaselessly exploited it. Two of Mr. Carter's immediately predecessors - Mr. Nixon and Mr. Johnson - developed techniques of deliberately dramatizing and even creating crises to build up their political voltage. Mr. Carter is deliberately moving in the opposite direction. He urges Congress again to pass his energy bill, but his words on the subject of energy were not nearly so urgent as those delivered three years earlier by Mr. Ford in his own State of the Union message. Mr. Carter is the first American President in two decades - and perhaps, you could argue, much longer - who seems actually willing to live with the politics of limited purposes and limited expectations of it.
"We need patience and good will, an d we need to realize that there is a limit to the role and function of the government," he said. He has now abandoned his pledge of a balanced budget by 1981, but the arithmetic there was against him from the beginning. More important, he is holding firmly to a further pledge that would hold federal spending to 21 per cent of the nation's economic output. That is why the $25-billion tax cut that he proposed on Thursday evening is bringing him into conflict with his own party in Congress.
Most of the congressional Democrats, particularly those who have been for a while, belong to the tradition of ebullient intervention. They understand perfectly that thetax cut is part of a larger plan to hold the federal role to an arbitrary limit. If the economy needs to be pushed this year by a big deficit, as Mr. Carter argued, they would prefer to do more of it by expanded spending. Instead, Mr. Carter wants to hold the next budget to only a hair's-breath increase in real spending - and, he adds, he hopes in the future to reduce it even further in proportion to the size of the economy. It's a remarkable reversal of roles between a Democratic President and Congress.
"Government cannot solve all our problems, set all our goals, or define our vision," President Carter said. The last several words of that line are troubling. The federal government and, above all, the President contribute powerfully to the national vision. It is one thing to say that the United States can survive spells of bad government, as it has recently done; but it's entirely another to suggest that it could get along indefinitely without a large sense of common purpose. Mr. Carter seems genuinely not to understand that truth - and it may well turn into the central defect of his presidency. He has not got his energy bill through Congress because he has not been able to give Americans a sufficiently clear idea or where it takes them. But there's far more at stake than getting legislation enacted. This country is a highly heterogeneous crowd of 220 million people, widely differing interests. This large crowd is held together as a nation by the strength of a central vision that needs constant nurture and revision.
The Carter administration is a reaction - and generally speaking a wholesome one - to the dangerously ambitious and aggressive presidencies of the Vietnam and Watergate years. Most Americans, we suspect, heard the President with little emotion but quiet satisfaction. He has correctly preceived that most Americans see no immediate threat to their well-being - for the first time, possibly, since the 1920s. In responding to that attitude, Mr. Carter is quite right to speak of limits to a government's ability to change the world. Those limits exist, and the United States get itself into deep trouble when it ignores them. But perhaps it is worth observing that those limits are not quite so confining as Mr. Carter currently seems to believe.