Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 3, 2010

IN DEFENSE OF GOVERNMENT.... President Obama hosted a town-hall event in North Carolina yesterday at a Charlotte factory where they develop advanced battery technology. The event was primarily devoted to talking about the economy, and it was well timed -- the president spoke shortly after the encouraging monthly job numbers were released.

Towards the end of the Q&A, an attendee asked Obama about health care reform and taxes, and the president proceeded to deliver an answer that lasted ... just over 17 minutes. This led to some mockery from the media -- for the record, I kind of liked the lengthy response, but I probably like in-depth discussions more than the typical political reporter -- and Obama, at the end of his soliloquy, conceded, "Boy, that was a long answer. I'm sorry."

What I found more interesting, though, was the president's remarks in defense of government itself. He was talking about the need for an improved national electrical grid ("smart grid") and the role government can and must play in tending to infrastructure needs. Obama told his audience that work on the grid "is an investment that only government, working with the private sector, can help to make."

"You're hearing a lot of talk these days about government, and government is 'terrible,' and 'bureaucrats,' and 'they're taking over' and all this stuff. Look, I don't want government any more than is necessary, but there are some things that Bob or any CEO can't invest in. Bob is not going to build the roads to get to Celgard. No company is going to make investments for a public good. None of you would expect a private company to fund our military or our firefighters. There are just some things that you can't do on your own, and the private sector is not going to do -- it's not profitable because if Bob was the guy who had to build the road, he'd have a whole bunch of other people driving on that road that weren't paying for it. So it's not a good investment for him.

"That's where government comes in. The same is true when it comes to something like the electricity grid. We're going to have to help create that infrastructure, just like broadband lines, just like a whole bunch of basic 21st century infrastructure, so we've got the platform in order to succeed and compete economically. That's what the Chinese are doing. That's what the Indians are doing. That's what the Germans are doing. That's what the United States is going to have to do."

I'm always glad when the president does this. One of Obama's larger, thematic tasks is changing the way people perceive the role of collective action through their government. The right's response to his presidency is a hysterical attack on the very notion of government action, which makes it all the more important for the president to make statements like these.

Americans need a reminder that when it comes to some key policy challenges, the only sensible solution is for the country to use the government as a tool to act in the public's interest, taking steps businesses won't take, and that individuals can't take on their own.

In other words, more of this, please.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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In other words, more of this, please.

Just a clear lecture in civics101 that even an adoloscent should be able to understand. Now if Obama would just use perhaps a sandbox and kindergarten as an example, the teabag crowd might get it.

Posted by: flyonthewall on April 3, 2010 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Unfortunately the US won't have the funds to invest in things like the smart grid if it does not get healthcare spending under control. That includes pharma, medical devices, doctors and hospitals, and the administrative costs of the health insurance industry.

By caving to interests like pharma and health insurance, and giving the latter a bailout via a privately collected tax, Obama has kicked that can down the road for someone else to deal with.

Tough decisions require a President who is not afraid of confrontation. Rather than change, we've got a President who is just maintaining the status quo.

Posted by: Taylor on April 3, 2010 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, big difference between Obama and Reagan. Reagan pooh-poohed the idea of goverment becoming involved in helping research and development in this country. Reagan defended his position by citing Roosevelt calling in top scientists and asking them if they could predict future developments. Reagan said they could not, so, why bother. Apparently, Reagan bypassed the huge leaps forward made in the moon shot, where government and industry worked together.

Posted by: berttheclock on April 3, 2010 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

and the president proceeded to deliver an answer that lasted ... just over 17 minutes. This led to some mockery from the media

I suppose they prefer the 1 minute 22 second word blizzard in which Sarah Palin empties everything in her head.

Posted by: oh my on April 3, 2010 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

Fly's correct; it's civics 101. But who the hell teaches civics these day?

Label it the Obama Doctrine and teach it far and wide. Teach it anew. It used to 101 because it's basic, a foundational ethos of western civ. But it's been largely forgotten and, unjustly, widely vilified.

Posted by: admadm on April 3, 2010 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

America's algae bloom of stupidity...

What admadm says just above. Every last drop.
And what Steve said: In other words, more of this, please.

The only way to counteract America's alga bloom of stupidity is with that old teacher's adage:
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

In a country that has teabags for brains you've got to remind folks to no end:
No car company or oil company has every built a road or a bridge...

Posted by: koreyel on April 3, 2010 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

Repetition, repetition, repitition...

It's going to take a lot of repeating that simple message - that we have government to achieve the things we can't do as rugged individuals or rapacious corporations. That, in a representative democracy, the "gummint" is us, and is responsible to us. And that we have the power and responsibility to pay attention and work to influence government officials.

This used to be basic civics - I notice a lot of you remember it. Apparently, NCLB has gotten much of that drummed out of the curriculum - civics ain't "readin', ritin' & 'rithmetic", so no point in wasting scarce instructional hours.

But the wingnuts have been using all media, relentlessly, for over 30 years, to spread the lies that the gummint can't do nuthin' right. That the gummint is some eeee-vil entity off there in Washington, that's got no connection to real Amurkins.

It's going to take a similar pushback and long term educational effort to change Americans' world view back to what the worshiped "Founding Fathers" envisioned. It would help if ALL Democrats could aid in the effort (hint, hint).

It would be nice if Republicans helped, too, but apparently they're down in the snake pit, permanently.

Posted by: Zandru on April 3, 2010 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah, Reagan's, "Government is the problem," is the stupidest and most destructive thing any President has ever said, and conservatives ejaculate every time the words are repeated. Talk about a mess for Obama to clean up! Thirty years of right-wing foolishness.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on April 3, 2010 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

Right-wing conservative "Government is the problem" has been drilled into Americans as sound bites for over 30 years. Even founders of capitalism like Adam Smith and Ricardo knew that mantra did not hold for public goods. promoting an alternate view in 17 Perot-like minutes on occasion is good. But Obama and the Democrats need constant, sound bite length, repetition of their alternate philosophy that government does some things best. They rarely take this latter approach. We need a leader who also does this well.

Posted by: gdb on April 3, 2010 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

...an attendee asked Obama about health care reform and taxes, and the president proceeded to deliver an answer that lasted ... just over 17 minutes.

Far be it from a semi-synaptic, low-cognitive-threshold, penny-ante staff writer the likes of the WaPo's Kornblut to contemplate that a mere "citizen" of the United States be worthy of 17 minutes and 12 seconds' worth of a United States President's time; that said citizen's right to an in-depth, well-formed reply to what that individual citizen clearly feels to be an important question should deserve more than the generic, annotated, 90-second "quickie" drivel being foisted by the hybridized combination of ludicrously-dishonest panderings and coded incitements available from the likes of Sarah "Gotta-Go-Galt" Palin....

Posted by: S. Waybright on April 3, 2010 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

Being retired USPS, I resent those who use the current financials of the USPS as being an indicator that the "government can't do anything right" and "looky here". I repeatedly ask them to provide any past evidence of the USPS being dramatically in the red as is the case now. I get nothing. People do not realize that this recession is far more reaching than they realize and has cut into the USPS, and would include technology where you can bypass the USPS when paying bills or even sending Aunt Millie a birthday card. Also consider last years gas prices, that private companies like USPS and FEDEX immediately started to tack on surcharges, while the USPS did not.

The FAA is another example that makes travel very safe and who would want "Bob" controlling air traffic.

Sewer and public water systems are another example and do you think "Joe the plumber" would have the capacity to handle this?

These people are nothing more than self interest morons who go against their own self interests. I guess they could go the crick for water and shit in the woods with the bears.

Posted by: Dave on April 3, 2010 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, exactly! This is the message Democrats desperately need to be pushing far and wide. You would not believe the number of conversations I've had in the past couple of months with Democratic activists who end up saying some variation of "well, the state/local budget is a disaster, but of course our people can't talk about taxes because they'll get destroyed by Republicans..." They think we've permanently "lost" the argument about taxes to the GOP, so we're stuck working within the "no-new-taxes" boundaries they want us to be constrained by.

We've only "lost" this argument if we fight it on their turf, where there is nothing of benefit to government, so taxes are just an unalloyed evil. But in the real world, government does things we all need, and those things have to be paid for. Nobody likes paying taxes, but most people understand this; the tea party free-lunchers are a small part of the population.

Case in point, the health care bill. It's kind of amazing that one of the main GOP attack lines isn't "all these new taxes." They've attacked specific ones to try to use as wedge issues, but not the overall financing. I think it's because they've been effectively undermined by the repetition of "it's paid for." If they push too hard on the tax side, they'll invite further comparison to Medicare Part D and the Bush tax cuts and wars, and risk revealing the free-ponies scam that is "fiscal conservatism."

HCR could be characterized as the ultimate in tax-and-spend. But when the spending is on something people really need, and the taxing is a responsible way to pay for that need, it takes the wind out of their sails.

Posted by: Redshift on April 3, 2010 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

In other words, more of this, please.

I would agree, although I'd also like him to stress the inherit dangers of the consolidated, centralized power that federal government represents (bloated, inefficient bureaucracy, tendency towards nanny-state legislating, political correctness, etc.) These are real, but controllable, dangers of too much federal government, and Obama should try to address them at every opportunity it in a way that recognizes the legitimate concerns of the anti-federal government crowd, as opposed to the knee-jerk conspiracists and racist components.

Posted by: DelCapslock on April 3, 2010 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

Very effective - but as others have mentioned, too sad that these kinds of facts are generally absent from school curricula.

The Right has had tremendous success over the 'government too big' meme, which can apply in some cases for sure but it used to general effect in most people's minds. People don't want private police, firefighters, and EMS (for example), and they need someone of profile to connect this to the anti-Gov message.

Posted by: terraformer on April 3, 2010 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

On the one hand, some complain that the government is taking over. On the other, others say the government doesn't do enough. Some of those groups intersect, including those taking govt money while complaining about others getting any. They are people we shouldn't take seriously. I'm glad that Obama is taking this on.

oh my (above, re the press): LOL, exactly.

I finally listened Boehner's "hell no" speech that he gave just before the House's health care vote on March 21. What a disingenuous piece of work he is. 'We've got to listen to the American people' he kept saying. Hey, bonehead, the only ones you're listening to are the ones you lied to, so of course they opposed reform. It was also amazing to listen to Rep. Devin Nunes, who seems to be divorced from reality (speech peppered with extreme nutjob code words), and when he got done, some Rs actually applauded him. These people have no business being in service to the public. Because they're not.

Posted by: Hannah on April 3, 2010 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

Government is how we collectively compel ourselves to do those things that we all know everyone should be doing but which none of us want to be the -only- ones doing.

Posted by: Bernard HP Gilroy on April 3, 2010 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

I liked Obama's answer as well, but he could have been more forceful on taxes - instead of saying "I don't know your circumstance", implying that tax hikes are hot-or-miss, he could have said, "95% of Americans are getting a tax cut, you should have noticed it while filing taxes - for healthcare reform the richest 5% of Americans will now pay the same Medicare payroll taxes on ALL their income, just like the bottom 95% already pay it"

Posted by: Ohioan on April 3, 2010 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

Government is how we collectively compel ourselves to do those things that we all know everyone should be doing but which none of us want to be the -only- ones doing.

Posted by: Bernard HP Gilroy on April 3, 2010 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

And look what happens when services are privatized. You end up with Blackwater and it's ilk shooting up civilians in Bagdad. You get private companies racking up billions in government contracts doing shoddy work (electrocuting showers) and getting rewarded with MORE CONTRACTS.

Study after study shows that privatizing services does not in the end save any real money and often results in poorer service.

Posted by: thorin-1 on April 3, 2010 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

But it's long past time to stop merely defending against attacks on government and begin counter-attacking aggressively against those who propagate this nonsense. Their credibility needs to be undermined without mercy, with rampant ridicule, because they are destroying the country.

Posted by: urban legend on April 3, 2010 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

some mockery from the media

Honestly? Does anyone in the media really believe they, of all people, are in a position to mock President Obama?

Then, of all things to try to mock him for, he gave an in depth serious answer to a citizen's question, without referencing crib notes scribbled on his hand.

I will note that the questioner was not a hand-picked and vetted card carrying member of the president's re-election fund club. But a regular "Joe."

Posted by: Winkandanod on April 3, 2010 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

It's going to take YEARS of this message for it to sink in because conservatives have bombarded people with the (all) government is bad/evil meme for decades. Most people don't think stuff though and if they did the would realize what government does - no matter the level - can be good and beneficial and necessary.

Posted by: ET on April 3, 2010 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

and the president proceeded to deliver an answer that lasted ... just over 17 minutes. This led to some mockery from the media - SB

I suppose they prefer the 1 minute 22 second word blizzard in which Sarah Palin empties everything in her head. - oh my @ 10:17

I know it's been well over a year from the previous disaster...but what about the 15 minute purge from dubya's pie hole to unload his cumulative thought process with the help of a teleprompter.

Each day I am so grateful.

Posted by: Kevin (not the famous one) on April 3, 2010 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Even after a seventeen-minute off-the-cuff peroration on a topic which he was not given in advance, I realize it is too much to expect the right to stop chanting "teleprompter."

Posted by: Nancy Irving on April 4, 2010 at 5:35 AM | PERMALINK



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