Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 25, 2009

MAKING THE CASE FOR GOVERNMENT.... In early January, when then-President Elect Obama delivered a speech to unveil his stimulus plan, he offered a rather explicit defense of government: "It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy...."

It was the first hint of a fundamental shift. Reagan told us that government "is the problem." Clinton told us the "era of big government is over." And Obama wants America to know that government is the "only" institution that's capable of addressing an economic crisis of this severity.

The president carried this idea forward last night, delivering a national address that was, at its core, a full-throated defense of government intervention. The NYT noted that Obama "proposed a more activist government than any other since Lyndon B. Johnson."

Alex Massie had a good piece, describing the address, accurately, as an "ambitious, liberal speech."

It was a speech that would have been too bold for Clinton and too grand for Carter. Obama is the heir to LBJ American liberals have been waiting for. Anyone who feared that the present economic turmoil would be used to justify any manner of government initiatives -- in the name of Not Doing Nothing -- had those suspicions confirmed last night. The era of Big Government (by American standards) is back.

But it's back with a poise and a coolness and a demeanour that, allied with the present uncertainty, make it a much more palatable proposition than at any time since the Great Society itself.

E. J. Dionne Jr. was thinking along the same lines.

President Obama's message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over.... [Obama] 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.

And that's ultimately why I liked it so much. The president wasn't apologetic about his use of government, it was just a matter of fact. These are times that demand an ambitious federal response and Obama is going to deliver one. We tried pretending that the government is a tool to be mistrusted and used sparingly, and now we're going to try something different.

I'm 35 and I haven't seen a president endorse this kind of progressive vision in my lifetime. It is, however, what I'd hoped for when I voted in November.

Update: Rich Lowry, intending this as criticism, noted that Obama is "trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation."

Yep.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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Comments

I have been saying this for years, that Government has a role, a responsibility, to create an atmosphere in which the majority of it's citizens prosper.

Just read the preamble and you find these simple words: "... promote the general welfare..."
Not provide, but promote.

Obama also pointed out that during times of crisis, the government has been a catalyst for growth and innovation, not a provider of. This is another great way of pointing out that government intervention, from a historical perspective, has always been there to fix the mess that the 'free market' has caused.

In the game of life, it helps to have a level playing field, and this is the point Obama, I think, is trying to make.

Posted by: citizen_pain on February 25, 2009 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK
I'm 35 and I haven't seen a president endorse this kind of progressive vision in my lifetime.
I'm 53 and there has only BEEN one in my lifetime: Lyndon Johnson before he got hopelessly mired in Vietnam.(There's a lesson there for Obama re: Afghanistan, by the way.) Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 25, 2009 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

One more thing I forgot to mention, and this goes out to all the Raygun-ites that believe government is bad, evil, corrupt, blah blah blah. If this is the case then I ask:

Have you packed your bags and booked your flight to Somalia yet? No government there. Enjoy.

Posted by: citizen_pain on February 25, 2009 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, Obama is better than the usual and trying, but still: serious progressives like Naomi Watts are saying things like, they're worried about all those Clintonites pulled in to deal with the economy. Those types really started the investment bubble with reducing regulations. Note that The Glass Steagall/Glass Stiegal Act was "repealed in [1999] by President Bill Clinton."
http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1042593/repeal_glasssteagallstiegel_act.html?cat=3

OTOH, I realize Obama needs to pragmatically get things hashed out and working, and to not freak out "the markets."

Posted by: Neil B ◙ on February 25, 2009 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

I'm 82 and I haven't seen a President talk like this in my lifetime! Maybe FDR.. but i was very young then and we didn't have the media we have now.

I wish we could change the way we look at political figures and not view everything though ideological colored glasses. Obama seems to be telling us it's time to dump the labels and until the Republicans get that, there's not much hope for them. I'm so tired of the talking heads analyzing every little detail and labeling it liberal, progressive, conservative, etc. Who cares. if it makes sense?

We finally have a leader that really is listening to everyone. He is the leader we've been waiting for...a long time!


Posted by: Mari on February 25, 2009 at 11:21 AM | PERMALINK

But I'm scared of government intervention. They're going to create another Hurricane Katrina if we rely on them.

Posted by: but Jindal said be afraid on February 25, 2009 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

Mari--I'm tired of the talking heads too. Last night was a great speech, and today they are debating and dissecting and critiquing it line by line.

As if Jindal's "Republican Response" wasn't enough of a downer.

Posted by: Just say no to the talking heads on February 25, 2009 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

Neil B, I worry about the same things, and I'm under no illusion that Obama is the kind of President I imagine in my wildest left-liberal dreams. But simply having such an effective spokesman for the basic tenets of progressivism in the White House is a huge deal. It will pay dividends long after Obama has left office (I hate to make this comparison, but... just as Reagan did for conservatism.)

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 25, 2009 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

If the stimulus is effective in blunting Bush's depression, perhaps the Democrats can spell out a long term financial battle strategy:

Low taxes and government spending when private investment ebbs so as to take full advantage of cheap labor caused by unemployment and thereby spend as little tax money as possible for the same necessary infrastructure components.

Raise taxes as private industry, full-bore capitalism kicks in and pay off debt (a la Clinton) accumulated when the economy was dragging in the name of protecting the strength of the dollar and lowering interest rates the treasury must pay.

Can Democrats be disciplined enough to hit the brakes on spending when private investment starts to kick in? The Democrat stands to gain the mantle of "financial wizards" completely abandoned by the GOP if they can sell this plan and then DO it. (assuming it works as advertised.)

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on February 25, 2009 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

I voted for ObamaM I volunteered for Obama. However, I didn't really imagine what living in a country led by Obama might really feel and look like.

I was on the Mall for inauguration but I think it didn't truly sink in how different things are going to be until last night.

I have never felt pride in my president before. I don't think everything is going to be OK because Obama says so- I think so because America elected him.

(Deep happy sigh)

Posted by: zoe kentucky on February 25, 2009 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

I think Obama has been missing one important point--we live in a representative democracy, WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT. It's easy for Republicans to bash the government when it's viewed as some faceless, soulless entity, but it's not.
I'm not saying Obama's speeches have been ineffective, I just think that this point really hammers it home.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on February 25, 2009 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

serious progressives like Naomi Watts

I like the part where she denounced corporate culture, then mutated into a washed-up actress who murdered her lover.

Naomi Klein, perhaps?

Posted by: Hopsie Pike on February 25, 2009 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

Only the government has the power to protect people from the vast accumulations of wealth to individuals and corporations created by capitalist economies. For the past thirty years government has been protecting that wealth instead of people from it. Obama may be using state power to protect people or he may be using state power to protect the wealthy. He makes broad policy pronouncements that appear to come down on the side of people, but most welfare so far has gone to the banksters. I have not yet heard a convincing argument that saving those who were most protected by the government the past thirty years, and most responsible for the economic crisis, is going to protect the people and raise their living standards, let alone prevent them from falling.

Posted by: Brojo on February 25, 2009 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe one day we can get rid of a phrase I'm really tired of: "Unapologetic Liberal."

As if we had to apologize. Now conservatives have whole decades to beg forgiveness for-- but they never do.

Posted by: Decatur Dem on February 25, 2009 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

Obama just introduced former Washington Governor Gary Locke as Commerce Secretary. Too funny, David Shuster followed that up by saying Locke was the third choice after Richardson and then he drew a complete blank on Gregg. He either remembered himself or someone prompted him thru his earpiece. LOL.

Locke is a good choice; he was very good as governor and King Co. Executive (Seattle and area). A policy wonk. Good.

Posted by: Former Washingtonian on February 25, 2009 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Really, it's a nicer way of saying, "Hey, Republicans, if you think government is the problem, either work with me to do something constructive or get the hell out of the way."

Posted by: Run Up The Score on February 25, 2009 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Citizen Pain and Mari: well said.

And Allan Snyder is correct - our government is headed by elected representatives. It is not some robotic, unhuman thing. That is what Jindal was implying and he is wrong. Sure "the government" can be bad or unresponsive or think of something else negative but that's because the people running it are not serving the people. That is the job of those in government. If it's not serving the people it needs CHANGE. Hmmm...

Posted by: Oregonian on February 25, 2009 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

Since 1980 the government has been the problem, because of the people who have been running it (Republicans) and their philosophy of governance.

Posted by: CH on February 25, 2009 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Allan Snyder and Oregonian your points are sublime. The main problem with government is when the people running it are incompetant or feckless or downright corrupt.

Posted by: Gandalf on February 25, 2009 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

It's always fun to watch the children trying to have a grownup conversation. If government were the solution we wouldn't have a slightly slowing economy right now. With all the complaining you people did about the federal government over the last eight years, you'd think you'd be embarrassed calling for larger government now.

Posted by: Myke K on February 25, 2009 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

Since 1980 the government has been the problem...

Then we are the problem. That government is not imposed from without by an occupying power.

We are used to struggling through the day, suffering from a series of auto-immune diseases of the body politic.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on February 25, 2009 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

Allan Snyder - Agreed. Well Said. The link needs to be made between government and we the people again and again.

Enough of this crap about Reagan. I lived through Reagan. Half the time he didn't have a clue what was going on. He could give a good speech, but he was a fucking actor for god's sake, he should be able to give a good speech. Who knows who actually ran the Country when Reagan was President? He was pathetic, and yet Republican hagiography has become conventional wisdom. Reagan was no Obama. There is no doubt that Obama is the one running the show. That was never the case with Reagan.

Posted by: Scott F. on February 25, 2009 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

"...to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation."

I will gladly go one better than Rich Lowry, by suggesting that Mr. Obama might well shift that center for a great deal more than "merely" a generation.

Welcome to the NEW "American Century," rightists---with extreme emphasis on the word "Century"....

Posted by: Steve W. on February 25, 2009 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

Myke-

We haven't been complaining about government all these years- we've been complaining about bad, incompetent, lying, corrupt government.

You're the folks who run for office by promising to be bad at your jobs- because government is inherently evil, right?

Posted by: zoe kentucky on February 25, 2009 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

Myke K: I guess I'm one of the children you mention. OK Mr. Grownup, can you please explain how we got into this mess and what we should do to get out of it?

Posted by: citizen_pain on February 25, 2009 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

Alex Massie: "The era of Big Government (by American standards) is back."

E.J. Dionne Jr.: "...[Obama] is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation...Tuesday night's speech was the most comprehensive manifesto he has offered yet ..."

As a long-time liberal, I can say, without reservation, that these statements are utter crap. There is no "manifesto" for liberalism, and it is not an ideology. Liberals don't believe in large government, small government or anything in between.

Liberals see problems and look for the best solutions. When government expansion is required, then so be it. When government is in the way, then so be it.

The silly right-wing rhetoric about big government vs. small government is inane (and disingenuous). Their accusations that liberals are always looking for ways to enlarge government (while they're always enlarging government) has been just another one of their many straw men. For liberals, the question is when does government work and when doesn't it work?

Liberalism is shorthand for positions on issues that reflect pragmatic solutions. Case in point...while Obama is "expanding government", he is seeking to reduce the size of the of the real deficit by half, in part by eliminating agricultural subsidies for big agriculture (billions for billionaires).

I would request that Steve and others avoid getting sucked into this big government/ideology rhetoric. It's inaccurate and counterproductive.

Posted by: CJ on February 25, 2009 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

Paul Krugman said it perfectly:

The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.

Posted by: msmolly on February 25, 2009 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

You know what? I am really getting tired of the trolls on here that have nothing but negativity and doomsday posts about our government and Obama.

Let me point something out to you people:

In his speech last night, Obama mentioned that the time is NOW to tackle the problems that have been festering for decades; problems that have been put off or ignored for too long, and that have contributed to our recent crisis.

When is the last time you heard a politician talk about the HARD STUFF? Huh?

The bottom line is Obama has more guts than most politicians since LBJ.

While you people are sitting back whining and moaning and crying and complaining about government, he's out there getting this shit DONE. he's doing what we Americans PUT HIM THERE TO DO.

You people LOST. Your ideology FAILED. MISERABLY. Get that? We tried it your way and it FAILED.

Obama's got chunks of guys like Myke K. in his stool.

Posted by: citizen_pain on February 25, 2009 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Steve on all this, but I think it's worth pointing out that Reagan's statement (during his first inaugural address) was not as broad as Steve's presentation of it implies. Reagan said "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. " He was not speaking generally, even though Republicans (and sometimes Democrats and progressives) have found it convenient to imply that he was.

Posted by: bdbd on February 25, 2009 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

If government were the solution we wouldn't have a slightly slowing economy right now.

Really, the dumbest people in the world. There's so much wrong in that short statement it's nearly baffling and to LIVE in that alternate reality must feel comforting to those who choose to be pig ignorant. But it's profoundly dangerous for the rest of us.

"Slightly slowing economy" is a pip though. It's perfect in its own way.

Posted by: Jay B. on February 25, 2009 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

The Carter-Reagan realignment is comparable to the Bush-Obama realignment happening now. Both Reagan and Obama followed disastrous reigns by the opposing party. Both were extremely popular. Both were essentially moderates. The main contribution of Reagan was to reset the term of the debate rhetorically. Liberal became a bad word and conservatism was considered serious, regardless of whether its primary spokesman slept during meetings and consulted astrologers.

Look, say whatever you want about Reagan, but he made conservatism so popular that you could elect a radical ass clown like Bush twice just on the strength of the conservative label -- and this after a tremendously successful Democratic president.

Posted by: inkadu on February 25, 2009 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

This is a refreshing corrective to the willful ignorance of the GOP and their idiotic agenda. It's stories like this that show the need for a basically competent press and it also sadly underlines how fucking incompetent they normally are.

Posted by: Jay B. on February 25, 2009 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

[Obama] has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government.

Bingo. And that's why this voter supported him in the first place. I don't know how much Obama will ultimately be able to fix - the vandals in the GOP have a twenty-eight-year head start on him. But if he can get us to realize that we all have a stake in the government and the nation, then we'll have a shot at fixing the rest of it sooner or later.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on February 25, 2009 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with CJ. We are so accustomed to sound bites and labels we can't think anymore.
President Obama understands politics (very well) but he is not a politician, He is a statesman in the old fashioned sense. Most of our elected officials spend there time raising money for the projects dear to their state or region or political party. Most of the advice they get is based on party concerns for future elections.

The difference with our new president is he cares about our country, people of the world and the future of us all .

Posted by: Mari on February 25, 2009 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Locke...was very good as governor

Meh. Not really. Pretty much a DINO. From Wikipedia:

Democrats criticized Locke for embracing the Republican Party's no-new-taxes approach to dealing with Washington's budget woes during and after the 2001 economic turmoil. Among his spending-reduction proposals were laying off thousands of state employees; reducing health coverage; freezing most state employees' pay; and cutting funding for nursing homes and programs for the developmentally disabled. In his final budget, Locke suspended two voter-passed, pro-school initiatives while cutting state education funding.

I voted for him in '96; abstained the second time. My wife asked me why; I told her, "If I'd wanted a goddamned Republican governor, I'd have voted for one!"

Posted by: Screamin' Demon on February 25, 2009 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Reagan told us that government "is the problem."

No actually!

Reagan said "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

He never advocated getting rid of government.

Posted by: Mark-NC on February 25, 2009 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

Obama's got chunks of guys like Myke K. in his stool.

I wish you'd quit saying that. I don't like to think of Obama as a person who poops.

(Before I get nailed for that: yes, it was a little self-deprecating humor.)

Posted by: shortstop on February 25, 2009 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

Myke K is correct on one point(even a blind pig, etc): REPUBLICAN government is indeed the problem. That's why the people fixed that last November.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 25, 2009 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Neil,

"Yes, Obama is better than the usual and trying, but still: serious progressives like [Naomi Watts] are saying things like, they're worried about all those Clintonites pulled in to deal with the economy. Those types really started the investment bubble with reducing regulations. Note that The Glass Steagall/Glass Stiegal Act was 'repealed in [1999] by President Bill Clinton'."

The repeal of Glass-Steagall had not "started the investment bubble". Glass-Steagall merely involved the prohibition against commercial banks owning investment banks and investment banks owning commercial banks. The repeal had no direct impact on the current economic crisis.

It did allow for the concentration of market share among the larger institutions, but that is a separate issue. Not to mention that we still had regulatory cops on the beat back in 1999.

Posted by: Joe Friday on February 25, 2009 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

Obama's got chunks of guys like Myke K. in his stool.

Sounds like someone's been watching their Best of Phil Hartman on SNL DVD.

From "The Sinatra Report":

Frank Sinatra: Next issue - Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner, who would you rather nail? I disqualify myself, because I've done them both.
Billy Idol: I think you're a bloody, stupid old fart!
Frank Sinatra: You're all talk, blondie! You want a piece of me? I'm right here!
Billy Idol: Don't provoke me, old man.
Frank Sinatra: You don't scare me. I've got chunks of guys like you in my stool!
Billy Idol: Alright, I'll rip your bloody head off.
Frank Sinatra: Steve, go kick his ass.
Steve Lawrence: [ confused ] What?
Frank Sinatra: You heard me!
Eydie Gorme: Do it, Steve!
Steve Lawrence: Huh? Well.. okay.. [ stands over Billy ]
Billy Idol: You got it. [ punches Steve in the gut, knocking him to the floor ]

Posted by: Screamin' Demon on February 25, 2009 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think government in general should be trusted, unless you think the Iraq War was all fine and dandy. Government has a role, but it needs to be balanced, like anything else.

Posted by: Franklin on February 25, 2009 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

so, you're 35. it shows. but don't worry, you'll grow out of it once you learn and develop what's known as "personal responsibility". most young people like you expect the gov't to do everything for you so you can sit back and reap all the benefits without the hard work. nothing more than a massive group of moochers and freeloaders sucking at the nipple of big gov't.
by the way, why do you insist on referring to yourselves as "progressives"? are you still too embarrassed to use that disgusting old name "liberal"?

[why do you insist on changing your handle? are you too embarrassed to own up to the false information you've posted prior to this? please find another forum for your rants - mod.

Posted by: christoff on February 25, 2009 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Liberal it isn't when it shorts the elderly and the poor. Philosophically more of the same, just a different technique.

Posted by: impartial on February 25, 2009 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

More and more, I keep hearing about increasing the size of government and increased spending, and somehow, I'm expected to be automatically appalled by the notion. It's just not the anathema that the GOP wants to make it, particularly not when all they can offer up are tax cuts.

They REALLY don't realize how much the Bush Administration destroyed their platform.

Posted by: Quinn on February 25, 2009 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

One of the big criticisms I always had of Clinton back in the 90's was that he was simply too willing to work within the framework that Republicans created, rather than fighting to create his own. Clinton's attitude was defensive in nature, making sure to let the Republicans stick their necks out first before finding a more popular stance for himself to take. And while he often "won" it was a victory on the Republicans' turf, and so they'd win even if they lost. I'm glad to have a president who's not only willing to fight Republicans on the battlefield, but also to fight for where the battle is held.

And one of the primary issues Obama's liberal critics have is the assumption that Clinton did things as best as possible; and that Obama could be expected to do no better and could easily do worse. It's still early, but based upon a year of campaigning and the few weeks he's been in office, it appears he's not making Clinton's mistake and is more than willing to take the fight to the Republicans, rather than waiting for them to take the fight to him.

It's tough to score points if you're too scared to leave your goal unprotected and venture into your opponent's territory. Obama seems to realize this.

Posted by: Doctor Biobrain on February 25, 2009 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

Minority style gimme government is great--until you have to pay for it. Obama continues the untra-liberal, profligate Bush borrow-and-spend policies, merely increasing them and renaming them "stimulus" and "the role of government." You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.

Posted by: Luther on February 25, 2009 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Brojo wrote: "Obama may be using state power to protect people or he may be using state power to protect the wealthy."

Or he may be doing some of both.

I think Obama's message to America's Ultra-Rich Ruling Class, Inc. is similar to FDR's message, or Clinton's message: that in the long run, the only way to protect their wealth is to spread the wealth.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 25, 2009 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Luther wrote: "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."

And you can slavishly regurgitate inane, scripted, Republican talking-points-for-dummies, but they're still inane, scripted, Republican talking-points-for-dummies.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 25, 2009 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

For crying out loud, people, Myke K is a parody!

Admittedly, a spot-on parody of a self-parodying wingnut troll. But I haven't seen so many commentors suckered since the fake tbroszes had the real tbrosz so dead on that the real tbrosz didn't need to post here any more.

Yeesh!

Posted by: Gregory on February 25, 2009 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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