One of the common themes throughout Barack Obama's presidential campaign, primary through general, was his desire to restore people's faith in government. Over the past two years, it was clear from the way Obama spoke about the role of government that he knew two things about the American people: 1. that they had been inculcated with a "government is the problem" orthodoxy since Reagan, a prophecy that was fulfilled by the failures of George W. Bush and 2. post-Bush, they are hungry for a government that works again.
During last night's speech, President Obama once again balanced these two realities, beginning the speech from an almost defensive posture.
As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government - I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited - I am.
But ultimately, his speech was as full-throated a case for the government as solution as he, or any president, has ever given.
His defense of government intervention to bail out the banks was particularly strong:
Still, this plan will require significant resources from the federal government - and yes, probably more than we've already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade. That would be worse for our deficit, worse for business, worse for you, and worse for the next generation. And I refuse to let that happen.
I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and results that followed. So were the American taxpayers. So was I.
So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you - I get it.
But I also know that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job - our job - is to solve the problem. Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility. I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can't pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can't get a mortgage.
That's what this is about. It's not about helping banks - it's about helping people.
Later in the speech, Obama appealed to people's nationalism when talking about the role of the government throughout history and its role as an economic engine today:
For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.
In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.
Obama was also clear to specify exactly how the stimulus package helped advance his energy, education and health care agendas. While Republicans made traction demonizing the bill as "wasteful government spending," Obama made clear last night that yes it is government spending but it was not wasteful. Obama's case was that not only is government spending necessary, it is productive and it is patriotic.
EJ Dionne gets it right when he says that in his rehabilitation of the image of government, Obama is restoring the image and concept of liberalism itself.
Aware that it is battling anti-government assumptions that are deeply rooted after a long conservative era, the administration will campaign to demonstrate that the stimulus money is being spent wisely and on programs the public sees as worthy. "We have to win this fight on the stimulus package," said one official, noting that getting the legislation passed was only the first battle. Ultimately, he said, a public reeling under rising unemployment rates will need to be convinced that government is actually improving its lot.
In just over a month in office, the president has pursued two goals that, conventionally speaking, seem at odds. Again and again, he has reached out to conservatives and Republicans with White House invitations and promises to incorporate their best ideas in his own plans. Yet at the same time, he has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation.
Tuesday night's speech was the most comprehensive manifesto he has offered yet for his new rendezvous with America's progressive tradition. "We will rebuild," he declared, "we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." If he is right, he will also have rebuilt American liberalism.