For years, Democratic politicians have been shy about talking up the virtues of government. It was all the way back in 1996 that President Bill Clinton declared "the era of big government is over."
That may have changed with President Obama's second inaugural address. Obama declared that only through government and "collective action" can the nation achieve its full promise.
"The president was willing to make the case for government being one component that helps our economy," says former Virginia Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello. "That's something you haven't heard much over the past generation or so."
Democrats have certainly never lost the habit of arguing in favor of one government program or another. They've been less likely in recent years, however, to talk positively about the general role that government plays in American society.
"It's very difficult, if not impossible, for someone who is president or wants to be president to say government does the right thing most of the time, because Americans don't believe it," says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian.
In his speech Monday, Obama seemed to be proposing a language for speaking positively about the role of government as a whole. Whether he and other Democrats continue to press this case will determine whether his address marked a turning point in how Americans talk and think about government, or if it was just another speech.
"You can think of this as trying to do the liberal or progressive version of what Reagan was so good at doing," says Paul Pierson, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, "which was to establish some core principles that were derived from traditions in American culture, and then to draw out some policy implications from them."
'Government Is The Problem'
In his first inaugural address in 1981, President Ronald Reagan said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
That sentiment has informed much Republican discourse ever since. The anti-tax, limited government point of view has been trumpeted not only by GOP politicians but well-funded and well-organized advocacy groups.
"There's this very articulate, widespread, bumper-sticker critique of government that is powerful and that people have heard enough times to hum along to — that markets are good and government's bad," Pierson says.
It's become a reflex for Republicans to say that government — writ large — is intrusive and wasteful. They are less likely, however, to talk about specific programs they want to do away with.
That dynamic may change with the coming debate over altering automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1, or when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin unveils his next budget proposal.
But offering suggestions about specific cuts to individual programs can be politically hazardous. Remember how hard Obama hammered last fall at his GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, for "attacking Big Bird" when he suggested slashing subsidies for public television.
Always Defending Big Bird
That's been a typical Democratic tactic, defending the value of concrete government programs from Republican attack, whether it's Social Security, weather forecasting or clean-water protections.
What Democrats have been reluctant to do for a generation is argue openly for government, per se — to insist that in a complex society and economy, government is not the enemy but a central component in promoting common goals both in the marketplace and in civil society.
"One thing that is pretty clear from the president's speech yesterday — the era of liberalism is back," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday. "An unabashedly, far left-of-center inauguration speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party of ages past."
Defending national security, training teachers, building roads and research labs — the president described all these as the work required not of individuals but of Americans acting together as a nation, through its government.
"There's a liberal tradition that Obama's pulling from, that government is a positive force to counteract the consequences of market economies," says Rosemary Feurer, a labor historian at Northern Illinois University. "That's a powerful rhetoric, but it hasn't been deployed in my lifetime."
Not Expanding Government ...
So, does Obama's speech signal that "the era of big government being over is officially over," as McConnell says?
Probably not. For one thing, many would argue that big government never went away.
Defense spending has doubled over the past decade, while the years since Clinton's pronouncement have seen major new expansions in health coverage, including Obama's own Affordable Care Act and President George W. Bush's prescription drug program for the elderly.
In addition, both budget and political realities suggest that Obama will not be able to launch another major spending program such as his first-term stimulus package or the health care law.
In this regard, it's possible that his inaugural address was meant to open up not so much a new era of good feelings toward government but a means of praising what government does, to preserve as much of it as he can.
A negotiating ploy, in other words.
"This is a way for Obama and other Democrats to position themselves for compromises that they realize will have to come, on entitlements especially," says Kazin, the Georgetown historian. "They've learned over the past two years, and after making gains in the election, that it's better to come on strong and then from that position begin to compromise."
... But Making It Activist
On the other hand, a tighter federal purse doesn't mean Obama will be incapable of pursuing an activist approach to government. His newly announced appointments for the heads of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau signal his desire to take a muscular approach.
Obama's most ambitious policy hopes for his second term — immigration, gun control, climate change — wouldn't involve significant new spending, but would each create more regulatory authority for the federal government.
The direction he'd like to go is clear. Obama's inaugural address was a ringing defense of using government as a tool for keeping society on the whole on the right path — perhaps the most full-throated argument of this kind that's been heard in a generation.
"Since the '60s, most Americans have been very skeptical that government can do very much," Kazin says. "Obama implied that only with the help of government could people get the opportunities or rights that they deserve."
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