Monday, September 21, 2009

"Obama Still Skirting The Great American Debate About Government"

Greg Sargent:
Reading through yesterday’s interviews with President Obama, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s still not quite engaging the eternal American debate about government, and could be making a stronger, more affirmative case that government has often been a force for good in people’s lives.
That, after all, is what Obama believes. It’s what this whole debate is really about. It’s a case that Obama has the rhetorical chops to make. Why not stake out a stronger position?

In each of his interviews, Obama did try to link all the tea party rage with government-is-always-bad fundamentalism. He also evoked the New Deal as a tacit reminder that, well, government isn’t always so bad. But was it enough?

Obama told CBS that health care has become a “proxy” for the debate about the proper role of government. But he noted defensively that he has “no interest” in growing government and just wants to make it “smart.” He told ABC that the rage is reminiscent of reactions to FDR’s New Deal, and said critics are “wrong” about the scale of his plans. But he didn’t say they were “wrong” to paint government as inherently malicious and evil.

What Obama didn’t say:

What we’re seeing now is part of a running debate we’ve always had whenever a president proposes big shifts in the role of government. Critics said FDR was a socialist when he created the New Deal and Social Security. They were wrong. Critics said Medicare was a socialist plot to put government bureaucrats in charge of people’s health care. Also wrong.

Now critics are saying the same about my plan — it’s a socialist plot, it’s a government takeover of health care, etc. They were wrong then. They are wrong now. I have no interest in growing government for its own sake. Is government excess something to be wary of? Absolutely. But judicious government has also improved people’s lives. People are pretty happy with their Social Security and Medicare these days. Neither would exist today if the critics had gotten their way. They shouldn’t get their way this time, either.

Obama has said he admires Reagan. And Reagan didn’t avoid this argument. He engaged it with gusto, albeit from the other side.

Obama is one of the most gifted public communicators of the last generation, so one imagines he’s thought this stuff through pretty carefully. But it still seems like he could be hitting these themes a bit harder.

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