President puts his full faith in the government
President Obama got through several hundred words of his State of the Union speech Tuesday night without reverting to his favorite subject, which is government.
This doesn’t make the president unusual, of course.
It just makes him a politician.
All politicians like to prattle on about government. Sometimes they extoll its virtues and sometimes they lampoon its failures, but as an institution it never strays far from their minds.
You might argue that politicians’ fixation on government is a healthy obsession, indeed a necessary one, and that they’re only looking after their constituents’ interests.
But this argument, it seems to me, presumes that without politicians’ constant oversight government would suffer either from excessive bloating or shrinking.
I think government has a sort of cruise control and that it — and more important, the country — are more apt to waft along serenely if the politicians don’t grip the wheel too tightly or try too many fancy double-clutch downshifts.
My parents were leery of letting me look after myself too, but when they finally relented and went to California for a week I didn’t crash the car or burn down the house or accidentally kill the dog.
(Although I might have emptied the refrigerator. And we didn’t have a dog.)
So anyway the president started by talking about some of the great things Americans have been doing, creating businesses and building great cars and plowing fields and the like.
“It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong,” Mr. Obama said.
Now I think most of us knew that already — certainly those business owners and carmakers and farmers do.
But it was refreshing to hear the president acknowledge the vital role that non-governmental Americans play in keeping America rolling along. He has a record of crediting the government — which is to say, himself — with certain successes.
The president reverted rapidly to his usual fixation, though, introducing the real theme of his speech with this:
“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.”
In one concise sentence the president thrust government, which must have been skulking just offstage, back into the spotlight.
What he’s saying, in effect, is that the government, apparently inevitably, will have a say in whether the factories keep assembling top-notch automobiles, whether entrepreneurs will continue to turn their ingenuity and toil into dollars and jobs, whether farmers will till the fertile soil.
Mr. Obama believes the crux of the debate in Washington, D.C., is about “the proper size of the federal government.”
This is an interesting question but I think ultimately a meaningless one, because the federal government can’t be measured as though it’s a waist which is trying to fit into a pair of skinny jeans.
Of course we can gauge the size of government in terms of the dollars it spends or the workers it hires — indeed, the government already spends millions of dollars to keep tabs on its own ever-expanding gut.
(Which is sort of like hiring a weight-loss consultant and then paying him to bring you a couple of Big Macs for lunch every day.)
The problem, it seems to me, is not the squabbles in Congress over $10 billion in the Farm Bill here and $20 billion in Homeland Security there, which is what the president is getting at with his “proper size” comment.
I’m troubled, rather, by what seems to me his blithe assumption that many of America’s triumphs — the stuff he started his speech with — depend, at some level, on the outcome of the debates in Washington, D.C.
The president continued with the typical fodder of State of the Union speeches, describing, by way of anecdotes, a rosy future in which Americans study and work and sacrifice and are rewarded with careers that are both professionally fulfilling and nicely compensated (the compensation, in some cases, being government-mandated).
Yet in Mr. Obama’s vision almost none of this happens without the government hovering like a helicopter parent at a piano recital.
He talked about a mother who wrote him a letter, explaining that she had lost her job and that her unemployment benefits had ended. “I’m not dependent on the government,” the woman wrote. “Our country depends on people like us who build careers, contribute to society, care about our neighbors. I’m confident that in time I will find a job...”
But not without the government doing something about those jobless benefits, according to the president.
After reading the woman’s letter Mr. Obama said this: “Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance. Give them that chance. Give them that chance.”
The president repeated the phrase three times, so there can be no doubt it represents his core beliefs.
The government will get you a job, or at least cut you a check in the meantime.
If that’s not the most succinct explanation of the president’s stance on government’s role, then this excerpt from his speech is:
“So get those bills to my desk; put more Americans to work.”
Cause and effect.
Legislation creates jobs.
I don’t question the president’s sincerity.
He’s no communist.
But he has considerably more faith in the abilities of government than I have.
Moreover, the president doesn’t just believe that the government can play a role in pretty much every aspect of our lives, he seems to me convinced that it should do so — indeed that it is obliged to do so if America is to fulfill its immense promise.
Yet even Mr. Obama acknowledged, perhaps without meaning to, that Americans, and America, can excel regardless of what’s going on in the Capitol or the White House.
In that first stanza of his speech, before the government intruded, the president laid out all those wondrous achievements. But he also said that they happened during a period when Washington, D.C., was, as he put it, “consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government.”
This happens to be true.
Why, then, does the president insist on implying that our nation’s future progress is threatened unless Congress gets its act together?
Jayson Jacoby is editor