Sunday, May 02, 2010

Obama at Michigan: the era of "the era of big government is over" is over

I could be wrong, but my impression is that Obama added a new riff to an old theme in his defense of government in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan on Saturday.

The basic argument -- that suspicion of government has been in America's "DNA" from the start, but that the country has also known when to marshal Federal power to serve the common weal -- is a theme that Obama has been sounding since his political career began.  Likewise with his acknowledgment that government in some ways got too big for its britches in the 60s and 70s (that "it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual certain instances" has "been true"). He said as much in The Audacity of Hope.

But this (below), I do not recall hearing/reading before.  Memory lapse, perhaps. Or -- a new development of the argument:
When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us.  We, the people -- (applause.)  We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad.  (Applause.)  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.  (Applause.)    Government is this extraordinary public university -– a place that’s doing lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.  (Applause.) 

The truth is, the debate we’ve had for decades now between more government and less government, it doesn’t really fit the times in which we live.  We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt.  But we’ve also clearly seen the dangers of too little government -– like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy.
So, class of 2010, what we should be asking is not whether we need “big government” or a “small government,” but how we can create a smarter and better government.
Throughout the campaign, Obama's core argument was that the political pendulum had swung too far toward distrust in government, that it was time again for government to address fundamental problems like health insurance and clean energy.  But I do not recall the itemized characterization of government as a series of specific essential functions.

This itemization (and partial personification) of essential government functions set the context for a defense of civility, an attack on the politics of demonization.  The point was, it's as ridiculous to demonize government as it is to demonize me, or the political opposition generally. And demonizing government debilitates government:
Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past.  It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth.  But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse.  And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized.  Remember, they signed up for it.  Michelle always reminds me of that.  (Laughter.)  The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise.  It undermines democratic deliberation.  It prevents learning –- since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”?  (Laughter.)

It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out.  It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation.  It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what do we do?  As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy.  And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents:  Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.  (Applause.)  But civility in this age also requires something more than just asking if we can’t just all get along.

As I have written before, I believe that Obama's bending over backwards past the point of political peril -- and seemingly, common sense -- to win some bipartisan buy-in to health care reform will not have been wasted. The vast majority of Americans who are not heavily invested in a political ideology can see that he is no ideologue, that he's not a demonizer, that he engages with opponents in good faith and seeks facts and goes where he at least believes the facts take him. As in the endless campaign, he has emerged again and again since his encounter with the House Republican caucus in early February  as the only adult in the sandbox.  Over time, if he gets his eight years, I believe that will sink in. He is building brick by brick a well of trust that I believe will hold water for what will by the end be a large majority of Americans.

UPDATE:  A post by Jonathan Chait reminds me that Obama's enumeration of some basic functions of government reminded me of this Monte Python classic: What have the Romans ever done for us?


  1. I thought his speech was great and really good for that audience to hear. Hearing such wisdom from a President can only help.
    I agree with what you wrote completely. Thanks for helping me to crystallize my thinking.

  2. The listing of specific things that government does is necessary at this time of craziness. Which is sad. But the public has to be re-educated about these things. I work for a local government and see public ignorance of how much it costs and how hard it is to keep streets in good repair, to keep water and sewer and electricity flowing and keep buses running. The trappings of civilization are neither cheap nor easy, and should not be taken for granted. The tea party is so far gone they have forgotten these basic truths. They would like to return to the 19th century. I fear it will take massive GOP victories in November before the public realizes how crazy those people are.