Obama Confronts Deeper Debate: Government's Role

Obama Confronts Deeper Debate: Government's Role

By David Paul Kuhn - September 10, 2009

Barack Obama has long avoided progressives' existential causes. Not long after the 2008 campaign Obama's top strategist David Axelrod said that he was "not trying to rebuild the Democratic Party."

A couple months later Obama stood before Congress for his State of the Union address. There he outlined a vision tied to Democrats' enduring philosophical fight. Where Ronald Reagan said that "government is the problem" in his first inaugural address, Obama spoke of government as the means to solve Americans' most serious problems. But he dared not say so overtly.

Not until Wednesday night did Obama explicitly take up the deeper fight, though the fight was already his own. From the stimulus package to health care reform, the debates of Obama's presidency all reached back to the enduring American argument--the role of government.

Obama's address to Congress last night centered on rallying the nation towards health care reform. It was, however, at the close of his address that Obama reached further into the "American character."

"Hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play," he said. Yet it was in Obama's following sentence that he betrayed his larger idea, that "sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise."

Obama summoned the birth of Social Security under Franklin Roosevelt and Medicare under Lyndon Johnson. He framed his cause as the next chapter in the long arc of twentieth century liberalism. As indeed, comprehensive health care reform, if passed, would mark the most significant expansion of government since the days of Johnson and Roosevelt.

Obama's agenda was always invested in the active state liberal presidents before him--a tradition rooted in Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and secured by FDR.

The legacy of FDR's liberalism was that "government didn't simply prevent evil but actively promoted good," as historian H.W. Brands wrote in "The Strange Death of American Liberalism." Or as James MacGregor Burns expressed in his biography of Roosevelt, FDR ushered in "the towering fact that at last the national government had acted to underpin the future security of Americans."

That "towering fact" was challenged in the Reagan era. It would not be until Obama's election that the dismantling of the welfare state was bookended. The era of Obama was to mark the resurgence of a government that "actively promoted good," or better said, secured it.

The electorate, however, never went this far. It kept one foot in the Reagan era even as Obama entered the Oval Office. Polling showed early in the Obama presidency that the public stands between Reagan and Obama in its view of government.

Obama, and his inner circle, did not digest this data. They fell prey to the exaggerated descriptions of the 2008 campaign. Last year was said by some to signify the inevitable beginning of a new progressive era. But little that is big in politics is inevitable.

Obama's team overestimated its mandate. The White House underestimated the work to be done to enact its vision. The public had moved away from Republicans and a conservative view of government. But Democrats had yet to fully win them over.

The primary focus of Obama's health care reform was initially offering insurance to the uninsured, only about one in ten adults. It did not focus foremost on lower costs, improving quality and offering more security to the working and middle class.

Obama repeated an old Democratic mistake. It was during Johnson's Great Society that Democrats went from pushing federal programs that once reached the broad public, like the G.I. Bill, to programs that increasingly offered benefits to smaller constituencies. And as the Democratic mandate left behind the larger public, that public left behind the Democrats.

Wednesday night Obama proved, however belatedly, that he finally understood his error.

The president spoke of the uninsured as "not primarily people on welfare; these are middle-class Americans." He detailed his agenda for reform by first emphasizing improved "security and stability" for those who have insurance, before discussing the uninsured. He affirmed the innate American skepticism of government while concurrently laying out the moral claim for an active government.

"You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom," Obama said. "But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited."

It was in sum a strong address. Obama was focused primarily, and rightly, on independent voters. Independents have soured on health care reform at twice the rate of partisans, according to CNN polling.

But there was a larger historical reach to Obama's entire address. "It has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health care reform," he said early in the address.

Clinton was, of course, the last president who attempted to finish what the first Roosevelt began. Clinton introduced his plan the same month 16 years ago. And then too, the battle for reform evoked the enduring battle over the role of government.

By December of 1993, conservative Bill Kristol circulated a strategy memo to Republicans. "Democratic welfare-state liberalism remains firmly in retreat," Kristol then wrote. Kristol advised congressional Republicans that the "first step" was "unqualified political defeat" of Clinton's plan because, in part, comprehensive health care reform will "relegitimize middle-class dependence for 'security' on government spending and regulation."

Today's partisan battle is again rooted in this same battle over government. Obama came to this realization late. He now acknowledges the costs of his mistake. "I still believe we can act, even when it's hard," he said.

Reform this large will remain hard because it returns Americans to their original debates. Government's place in citizens lives once divided men like Jefferson and Hamilton. It will divide us as well.

In 1909, the architect of active state liberalism, Herbert Croly, published his seminal intellectual blueprint "The Promise of American Life." A century later, Obama is yet another progressive president attempting to make Croly's case.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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