We keep hearing that Obama's “didn’t build that” speech was politically problematic because swing voters are receptive to the argument that Obama envisions too central a role for government in American society. I don’t know if that's true or not. But what’s always missing from the discussion is how conflicted the American people’s views about government and federal power remain.

A new poll out from Hofstra University, which dug deep into the opinions of suburban voters — a key national swing consistuency — is pretty interesting along these lines. It finds Obama and Mitt Romney exactly split among these voters. But on the questions of government spending and regulation, their verdict is clear: They are inclined against them in the abstract, but are adamantly opposed to cutting them when the talk turns to specifics.

* More than seven in 10 suburban residents say they favor cutting federal spending in general. But when you get specific, 87 percent oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits. And 65 percent support increasing government spending on infrastructure and public works projects.

* A majority, 51 percent, says government regulation of business usually “does more harm than good.” But when you get specific, nearly two thirds of them say the environment should be protected by doing ”whatever it takes.” Even when you add into the equation that regulation might cost jobs, a bare majority still says strict environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. Keep in mind these are suburbanites, not overall Americans.

This is, of course, exactly the turf this presidential race will be fought upon. Romney says Obama wants America to be a “government centric” society, and mocks the Obama campaign’s “Life of Julia” web application because it supposedly envisions government holding Julia’s hand from cradle to grave. But Romney also wants to cut taxes deeply on the rich, which will all but certainly place more of the burden of deficit reduction on cutting popular programs that Julia — and the majority of Americans — have grown to like a good deal.

Romney says we need to sweep government regulation aside so the free market can shower everyone with opportunity, and conservatives appear confident this message will reinforce a sense that Obama’s policies have strangled the recovery. But the public likes the idea of using government to protect the environment. And this poll didn’t even ask about food safety.

If Obama can steer this into a debate over who Americans should trust to approach entitlement and regulatory reform in a balanced way, one that defends middle class interests — him, or Romney and a bunch of Tea-boiling-mad right-wing Congressmen — then perhaps he can begin turning the argument over government to his advantage.