Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 1, 2010

IN DEFENSE OF GOVERNMENT, CONT'D.... President Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan today, and spent some talking about one of my favorite subjects: the role of government in 21st century America.

In the abstract, as we all know, one of the thematic goals of the Obama presidency is shifting the public's understanding of and appreciation for government itself. The prevailing paradigm of the last 30 years has been unshakable: "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." This president has the unwelcome task of changing the way people perceive the role of collective action through their government.

And periodically -- in his first State of the Union, at various public events -- Obama will, with varying degrees of subtlety, remind the electorate that the government can be a productive, constructive role in advancing the country and empowering its people. The president's audience in Ann Arbor heard some extended thoughts on this very subject.

"...American democracy has thrived because we have recognized the need for a government that, while limited, can still help us adapt to a changing world.... The democracy designed by Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire, the first Americans were understandably skeptical of government. Ever since, we have held fast to the belief that government doesn't have all the answers, and we have cherished and fiercely defended our individual freedom. That is a strand of our nation's DNA.

"But the other strand is the belief that there are some things we can only do together, as one nation -- and that our government must keep pace with the times. When America expanded from a few colonies to an entire continent, and we needed a way to reach the Pacific, our government helped build the railroads. When we transitioned from an economy based on farms to one based in factories, and workers needed new skills and training, our nation set up a system of public high schools. When the markets crashed during the Depression and people lost their life savings, our government put in place a set of rules and safeguards to make sure that such a crisis never happened again. And because our markets and financial system have evolved since then, we're now putting in place new rules and safeguards to protect the American people.

"This notion hasn't always been partisan. It was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who said that the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves. He would go on to begin that first intercontinental railroad and set up the first land-grant colleges. It was another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who said that 'the object of government is the welfare of the people.' He is remembered for using the power of government to break up monopolies, and establishing our National Park system. Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced the Great Society during a commencement here at Michigan, but it was the Republican president before him, Dwight Eisenhower, who launched the massive government undertaking known as the Interstate Highway System."

It's striking to think that some of the milestone achievements of Republican icons would be rejected as outrageous progressive abuses by much of today's prominent conservative voices. I can almost imagine Teddy Roosevelt appearing at a town-hall meeting, with an unhinged activist demanding to know where in the Constitution it states the government has the authority to create public parks.

Obama added today:

"Of course, there have always been those who've opposed such efforts. They argue that government intervention is usually inefficient; that it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual initiative. And in certain instances, that's been true. For many years, we had a welfare system that too often discouraged people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. At times, we've neglected the role that parents, rather than government, can play in cultivating a child's education. Sometimes regulation fails, and sometimes its benefits do not justify its costs.

"But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs from the health care debate was one that read 'Keep Government Out Of My Medicare,' which is essentially like saying 'Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run Health Care.' For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

"Government is the police officers who are here protecting us and the service men and women who are defending us abroad. Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. Government is this extraordinary public university -- a place that is doing life-saving research, catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.

"The truth is, the debate we've had for decades between more government and less government doesn't really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government can stifle competition, deprive us of choice, and burden us with debt. But we've also seen clearly the dangers of too little government -- like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly led to the collapse of our entire economy.

"So what we should be asking is not whether we need a 'big government' or a 'small government,' but how we can create a smarter, better government. In an era of iPods and Tivo, where we have more choices than ever before, government shouldn't try to dictate your lives. But it should give you the tools you need to succeed. Our government shouldn't try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who's willing to work hard.

I obviously don't expect the president to emphasize this point in every speech, or in the context of every debate, but the more Obama defends the basic role of government, the better. Especially as we did ourselves out of a hole created in large part by the absence of government, the public's appetite for state activism should be stronger.

Of course, we know it's not. I often think about a post from March in which we talked about a woman in Texas battling breast cancer. She and her husband were unemployed, and deeply worried about the future. But she was adamantly against the Affordable Care Act, no matter how much it would benefit her family, because she feared government abuses and inefficiency. "Every government program," the woman said, "none of them work very well."

This exact same family was getting by on unemployment benefits (a government program), and is holding onto some health coverage through COBRA (another government program), which they could afford thanks to federal subsidies (through another government program).

But this woman, like too many Americans, had come to find conservative rhetoric so powerful, she was willing to oppose the very safety net her family needed, because the net would be provided by her own government -- not realizing that she was already benefiting from the net already in place.

It's precisely why the president's remarks in defense of government need to be reinforced from time to time -- the right's hysterical attacks on the very notion of government action have warped public perceptions.

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 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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Pretty words indeed. Notice what Obama doesn't talk about: the need for his administration to continue Bush-era policies re terrorism, detainees and the like.

Posted by: PowerOfX on May 1, 2010 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

The Professor at his best.

Posted by: hornblower on May 1, 2010 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

"I can almost imagine Teddy Roosevelt appearing at a town-hall meeting, with an unhinged activist demanding to know where in the Constitution it states the government has the authority to create public parks."

Well you can see this spectacle, sans Teddy. Just head down to Colorado Springs to see the 'no gubmint' crowd in action:

Bottom line: If you're poor, you better get out of town; if you're not, you better get a gun. And if it's a park you're wanting, you'd better get a place with a big yard.

Posted by: Baldrick on May 1, 2010 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Teddy Roosevelt liked to spar and wrestle with the people he liked. I imagine that he would challenge those choosing to heckle him to a sparring match right then and there. Teddy probably would end up kicking some serious butt

Posted by: Patrick on May 1, 2010 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Bravo Steve, a very thoughtful post (and kudos to POTUS as well). Earlier in the day I'd been thinking about the is the US center-right or center-left debate, with some now arguing that center-right is again in the lead. I believe, and humbly think Obama does, too, that we are a center-murky country, still undefined. He is competing to supply that definition.

Posted by: Bill on May 1, 2010 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

The theory and the evidence are obviously persuasive and true. The image of government in people's minds today is, unfortunately, jaded and tarnished by the dismal moral quality of many of the people's representatives, who are so easily bought by vested interests.

What people are really complaining about, if they were able to recognize it, is not 'government' but behind the scenes lobbying by non-elected special interests with monstrously deep pockets and precious little concern for the public good.

It is a Catch 22, because these special interests are so powerful they can keep the electorate largely bamboozled and so protect their back room wheeling and dealing ad infinitum.

Posted by: Goldilocks on May 1, 2010 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

I was at the speech today and it was everything that Steve describes. And in stark contrast, No-nothing Palin was engaged in her faux-folksy rambling about 50 miles away in Clarkston. And, of course, the Detroit newspapers give both events equal billing and coverage. Ridiculous.

Posted by: Stella on May 1, 2010 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

Government is the only entity large enough, and independent enough, to stand up to business abuses. Without it, we'd be at the mercy of people who put money over people (and the environment).

Posted by: JPS on May 1, 2010 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

It's no wonder that Obama, speaking to a liberal university in a liberal city in a blue state, would extoll the role of government. But look at his actions so far: no NRA or PWA-style jobs programs, the weakest possible health care reform, an obviously inadequate stimulus, no government energy program (instead we get "let's explore more offshore drilling"; great timing on that), and a go-along-get-along nonentity as the leading candidate for the Supreme Court.

It's way past time to look to Obama's speeches as an indicator of what he really values.

Posted by: Notorious P.A.T. on May 1, 2010 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

"Especially as we did ourselves out of a hole"

Assuming you actually meant "dig" versus "did".....I see this all the time. To get out of a hole, you need to climb, not dig. Remember the first rule of holes.......When you find yourself in a hole that you don't want to be in, stop digging!

Posted by: sceptic on May 1, 2010 at 6:03 PM | PERMALINK

Besides giving a defense of government, it's also about time that people be reminded of the monstrous folly of allowing big business have free reign without serious government oversight. The record of catastrophes in the last few years is pretty amazing:

(1) Goldman Sachs responsibility for (or at best, cavalier indifference towards) the financial crisis that nearly plunged the US (and much of the rest of the world) into a Great Depression.

(2) Massey Energy's indifference to the health and safety of its workers, leading to the deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia.

(3) Insurance companies massive rate increases, while denying huge numbers of people the money to pay for health care.

(4) British Petroleum's recklessness about its offshore drilling, leading to possibly the biggest human-caused environmental catastrophe since Chernoble.

Other examples, guys?

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on May 1, 2010 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

How about salmonella and E-coli outbreaks on a monthly basis after Bush nearly dismantled the FDA?

Posted by: Alan on May 1, 2010 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

"When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer 'Present' or 'Not guilty.'" -- Theodore Roosevelt, he of the big stick.

Posted by: Ten Bears on May 1, 2010 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

Daryl McCullough - how about a toothless SEC ignoring all warnings about Bernie Madoff?

Upper Big Branch mine, anyone?

Well, at least we haven't had a China product debacle recently. But just ask anyone about Chinese drywall in their homes, and you might get a different answer.

C'mon folks, this is easy.

Posted by: BuzzMon on May 1, 2010 at 8:00 PM | PERMALINK

@sceptic-- How to dig yourself out of a hole;

1) stop digging *down*
2) dig into the side of the hole
3) use the dirt from the side to start building a ramp
4) continue digging up the side, adding to the ramp
5) walk out the hole

Pickly details on figures of speech aside, everyone wants the government to do something-- especially libertartians and conservatives.

They want to limit government actions to things that benefit the rich (that is themselves if they are rich or the rich if they believe they are most like the rich).

Posted by: jamie_2002 on May 1, 2010 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

Although Obama's intelligence is undeniable and his intellectual and reasoned approach to policy are quite refreshing, I find it very hard not to side with the people who do not much care for the words and the style in light of his continuation of some of GWB's loathsome polices and the unduly deliberate speed with which he going with respect to those that he has vowed to discontinue.

Posted by: gregor on May 1, 2010 at 8:05 PM | PERMALINK

"Pretty words indeed. Notice what Obama doesn't talk about: the need for his administration to continue Bush-era policies re terrorism, detainees and the like."

Thirded. If he wants us to appreciate government perhaps he could stop it from disappearing people to torture chambers sans trials or even legal counsel.

That is a non-starter and non-negotiable. But he doesn't care. He's an authoritarian, quite simply. Smarter than he predecessor but no less vile.

Posted by: Tlaloc on May 1, 2010 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK

The anti-government lot are absolutely nuts. I was at a party recently where an attendee said "I love my country but I hate my government." And this from a "public" school teacher in a state that would have lost numerous public school teaching jobs were in not for the stimulus. So she was too dumb to realize the government saved her, or a co-workers job and I guess she hates herself.

These same folks would side with business (to include the existing private insurers) even though doing so is against their interests. Private business owes its loyalty to the corporate entity. The government, in a republic or representative democracy owes its loyalty to the people. The government can make mistakes and pursue policy against the public interest (e.g., see Bush II), but at least you have times when they work for you. Nothing against business, we need it in a capitalistic society, but it never acts first in your interests.

What we need to do is "value" our government while always watching and questioning it. Value it because it, alone, acts in our interests. Watching it an questioning it because it is extremely powerful and can cause tremendous irrepairable harm. So, to rephrase the teacher's statement for what I believe is the correct philosopy, "I love my country and, while keeping an eye on it to ensure it serves my interests, I love my government too.

Posted by: Matt Alan on May 1, 2010 at 8:50 PM | PERMALINK

I tend toward small-government philosophy. (Not to the total detriment of common sense, though. When my libertarian friends suggested that compulsory education was wrong because an uneducated 18-year-old can always make up for lost time, I should have known it was time to get out.) I think Obama does a good job presenting the somewhat-bigger gov't perspective though.

Ultimately my view derives from a distrust of large organizations, which derives from a distrust of human nature. I feel the same way about corporations, frankly, but creating an oppressive bureaucracy to deliver us from oppressive corporations isn't going to get us there.

Obama seems to be a pragmatist. Although core principles are certainly important, I'm coming to value pragmatism higher than ideology.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on May 1, 2010 at 9:11 PM | PERMALINK

But should there ever be limits on the size of the government? Should there ever be cost-benefit analysis of those government actions?

Once government started down the road that the government should create a new program to deal with every ill or every complaint, then there is not limit. Have we already forgotten the arguments of how to have employees without employers? Have we already forgotten regulatory take over? Have we already forgotten the ratchet effect? Have we already forgotten the argues about government takings or civil rights violations?

Posted by: superdestroyer on May 1, 2010 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

It continues to amaze me that one of the longest-running programs to level the federal marketplace for minority-owned firms, the 8a Program, was initiated by none other than President Nixon. He did it in large part to address the glaring inequalities between black- and white-owned firms underscored by the riots and social unrest in the early part of his Presidency.

Perhaps one day we won't need special procurement rules to level the federal market playing field but the 8a program has served an important purpose for nearly 50 years.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on May 1, 2010 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK
"If libraries didn’t already exist, there’d be no way they could ever come into existence now. Can you imagine telling the publishing industry that the government was going to pay to set up buildings where they gave away their product for free?" -- Nick Reville

Posted by: joel hanes on May 1, 2010 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

How DARE he cite the accomplishments of Republican Presidents. Who does he think he IS?

Posted by: Outraged GOOP on May 1, 2010 at 11:24 PM | PERMALINK

Obama seems to be a pragmatist. Although core principles are certainly important, I'm coming to value pragmatism higher than ideology.
Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on May 1, 2010

I prefer "realist".

And to be real, this country is headed toward an idealogical cliff. In 1860 the cliff was over the right of rich whites to own dark skinned people as property. Today, the cliff is over the right of corporate America to own the country's government. Personally, I'd prefer to cede the South back to the rich-white elite so they can run wild with their no-government, mega-corp philosophy. That little experiment couldn't happen to a better part of the country. And to anti-phrase St,Ronnie, " large private corporations aren't the answer, large private corporations are the problem ".

Posted by: oh my on May 1, 2010 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

I'll cut some federal government for you. I'm with the "old" Republican Party who wanted to get rid of the Department of Education.

I really, really think the federal intrusion into local schools (i.e. "No Child Allowed to Think") is dumbing down the creativity of the next generation.

Posted by: Sarah Palin IS the ANTIchrist on May 1, 2010 at 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

In answer to the suggestion (Sarah Palin) that getting rid of the Dept of Education is a good idea and going back to local decisions on education, I give you the Dover, PA, board of education and the Texas State Board of Education. And these are just two small examples. The TSBE represents the thinking of a majority of the Texas voters, so their prescriptions for what to teach would be rampant within the state even if they didn't exist.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on May 2, 2010 at 12:29 AM | PERMALINK

Modern conservatism is the practice of trying to get ordinary citizens to strangle government with the same lifeline government has thrown them.

Posted by: petorado on May 2, 2010 at 1:08 AM | PERMALINK

Note that when oil spill disasters or tornadoes strike, the Red State Governors expect you will forget their talk of "intrusive" big government, secession, Guy Fawkes, etc. and demand Federal action subsidized by the rest of us. The kind of intrusiveness that involves cleaning up their messes is just fine with them.

I think we have a government that does stupid things occasionally, but does more things very well, while demanding little of us. This "mistrust" meme is tragically wrong.
All this

Posted by: bob h on May 2, 2010 at 7:07 AM | PERMALINK

Can't pull it up, but, a week ago, some right winger politico was on cable saying the Federal Government had no right to be involved in national parks. He said the areas should be left to state control.

Posted by: berttheclock on May 2, 2010 at 8:23 AM | PERMALINK

To expand on Alan's comment about Salmonella and E coli: I remember a news item about a slaughterhouse that regularly processed 'downer' cattle, which may have been showing signs of Mad Cow Disease, and selling the meat to school lunch programs. It was bad enough that they were in violation of the law, but they were also threatening public health . . . and targeting children . . . who were poor!

Posted by: Daniel Kim on May 2, 2010 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

Intercontinental railways, Great Societies, Interstate Highways, Land Grant Universities, Homesteading Rights, National Parks. Is that all you Lefties can throw out? Why, give me the newly elected mayor who can spend 50 grand to re-decorate her new office, anytime. That was "Real Vision" for leadership.

Posted by: berttheclock on May 2, 2010 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

Each time I see this president on TV, with his cool but strong manner I thank my lucky stars a million times over that we do not see McCain/Palin in charge.

Posted by: jJS on May 2, 2010 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

Obama's ideas are all sentiments I share, but I wish that he and other liberals would adjust the emphasis away from "government" per se and toward "nation," because the conflict we are having today is the same one we've been having since Federalists and anti-Federalists hammered one another with obscure quotes from highminded Roman statesmen -- does E Pluribus Unum describe our country or is it nothing more than a pretty if meaningless slogan?

Liberals want to build a larger national community. Conservatives don't. That's the essence of the debate we are having. Conservatives want to be left alone in those communities they already have and control -- and if they can't control it they want no part of it. Hence all the talk of secession, nullification, armed rebellion, "real America" and now a new law in Arizona that, whatever the actual reality of its enforcement may be, has served to further divide the country along lines we can do nothing about -- our identity.

"Government" as such is not the issue because government is not an end in itself. It is merely the tool by which a democracy is able to execute the expressed will of the people, no matter how powerful other private or counterveiling interests might be -- which is why a right wing that wants no part of a larger nation is so desperately obsessed with convincing itself and us that it speaks for the people and not the majority that won the last two elections.

By all means, let's have a debate on the specific things that government should do. But let's not lose sight of the fact that we are having a much more fundamental debate than how much taxes to impose or whether regulation is a good thing. The debate we are hgaving goes much deeper than the size and scope of government and to the question of whether certain Americans want an America at all.

Posted by: Ted Frier on May 2, 2010 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

The commencement speech rebuttal by John Boehner:

"Big Business employs us and pays us very well. They are really cool. They have lots and lots of money and are generous. They provide representatives with aides who know alot of stuff and can read really large bills, like the Obamacare bill, which was longer than War and Peace. They do your homework for you. They pay for cool vacations and stuff. I'll leave you with this: Think of government as your parents telling you what to do and big business as the cool unregistered level 3 sex offender neighbor who buys you alcohol and smokes pot with you."

Posted by: John Henry on May 2, 2010 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

Further Boehner - "Not to forget all of those cool gift certificates to tanning salons"

Posted by: berttheclock on May 2, 2010 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

"Ultimately my view derives from a distrust of large organizations, which derives from a distrust of human nature."

But the reason our founders created a big government IS human nature. If only a few people are in charge, we are at the mercy of their caprice. If we spread power around to more people, and have them check and balance each other, we are better off.

Posted by: Notorious P.A.T. on May 2, 2010 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

A very good speech. However, as always, Obama conceded too much. His example of a bad government program was AFDC. He didn't mention the enormous increase in severe poverty from 2000 to 2006, that is, before the recession. Welfare reform has had social huge costs. Only during the period of extraordinary boom in the late 90s were those huge costs prevented by the extraordinary boom. Oddly people are no longer so sure that the pets.com was a great idea. Yet the years 1996-2000 are considered to provide sufficient data to evaluate welfare reform.

A claim plainly contradicted by the facts is accepted as something everyone knows -- really Obama's one and only concession to Republicans. That bit of the speach was an Obamanation

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on May 2, 2010 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

But he has to be far, far stronger in attacking the anti-government philosophy than saying it "troubles" him. He must attack it the way Truman, or the Roosevelts would, demonstrating the damage Reaganism has done: like the people who have died in mine collapses because of deregulation. You have to be disagreeable to some people some of the time, but even if you are adept at selling a point of view with a spoonful of sugar -- which is the talent we expected to see on display with Obama -- you have to actually disagree, and make that disagreement crystal clear, before you can do it "without being disagreeable."

Not being disagreeable does not mean finding the midway point between an absurd position and an intelligent one.

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