Editorial: Right-Sizing Government; Obama Shares His Vision

The era of “the era of big government is over” is over. That at least was what a number of commentators took away from President Obama’s State of the Union address last week.

We’re not so sure. The steps proposed by the president on the economy, on climate change, on immigration, on gun control and a host of other issues reflected the cautious, albeit progressive, incrementalism that we have come to associate with Obama. In other words, the address heralded not the second coming of the New Deal but perhaps the beginning of the end of the Raw Deal that many Americans have experienced during the past decade.

Indeed, the spirit of the address was neatly captured in one passage near the end, in which Obama said, “Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”

But despite the lack of soaring rhetoric and transformative ideas contained in the address, there is certainly some truth to the notion that Obama is seeking to change the subject of the national political conversation. Remember that during the 2008 campaign, he expressed appreciation for the way that Ronald Reagan had succeeded in shifting the country’s ideological center well to the right in a way that has long outlasted his tenure in office. While not in agreement with Reagan’s outlook, Obama noted that he changed “the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” (That’s Bill Clinton, as in “the era of big government is over.”)

There is some reason to think that Obama might succeed in at least re-establishing the idea that government can be a force for good in the lives of Americans, instead of being the source of all the country’s ills. There are many reasons why this could be true. One is that the disasters that befell the country in the years leading up to Obama’s election in 2008 — in particular the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the near-collapse of the financial system — undermined people’s sense of personal security and underscored the fact that there are critical challenges in a nation’s life that cannot be addressed adequately by individual or private resources.

These signal events carried another message, although one not fully recognized as such at the time. That was that the federal government had failed to protect its citizens in a way that they were entitled to expect. And not only that. By connecting the dots, it was possible to see that these failures were the predictable consequence of conservative attack on the very foundations of government, which had become weak and ineffectual.

One bellwether of a change in attitude toward government is the voting patterns and attitudes of young people. Nationally, since 2004 young voters have been voting Democratic by much wider margins than previous young generations. And the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported in November that voters under 30 are “the only age group in which a majority said the government should do more to fix problems.” The trend of young people voting Democratic may be partly explained by the party’s stance on social issues such as gay marriage. But it’s more than that. Obama’s idea that government can be a constructive force resonates with and may leave a permanent impression on a generation that is coming of age in hard economic times, just as the New Deal did with the Depression-era generation. No one is suggesting here that Obama is in the process of forging a long-lasting Democratic majority, as Franklin Roosevelt did. But he may be incrementally making the case for an enduring, moderate liberalism.