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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009

The Pro-Government President

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Appropriately, much has been made of the historic election of the first African American president of the United States.

But President Barack Obama’s inaugural address made it clear his presidency is historic in another very important way as well. We have elected a president who actually believes in government.

To realize what a radical departure that is in American politics today, we have to look back to the last two presidents who used government to make a difference in the lives of the American people. Notably, both were Democrats.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson extended civil rights and voting rights to black Americans, declared a war on poverty and moved America toward becoming a Great Society by providing government health care for the poor and the elderly.

In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pulled America from a Great Depression with public employment for the quarter of the country that was out of work and established Social Security to protect aging Americans from poverty.

President Bill Clinton, another Democrat, had a chance to take his place among those activist, pro-government presidents when he was elected on a wave of public support for universal health care.

But when the health care reform plan crafted by his wife Hillary was defeated by lobbyists for the insurance, pharmaceutical and health industries, Clinton joined with Republicans “to end welfare as we know it.”

It turned out to be much easier to achieve a victory taking benefits away from poor people than to provide health benefits for everyone, leading Clinton to declare: “The era of big government is over.”

That is why the most radical idea in Barack Obama’s inaugural address was this: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

That may not seem like a startling idea, that government should work. But for the last eight years our country has been led by people who did not believe government should help families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford or a retirement that is dignified.

The Common Good

Radical conservatives like George W. Bush do not believe government should serve the needs of the American people and he did his damnedest to make sure that it didn’t. Once you realize that motivating political philosophy, it is possible to look at the Bush administration in an entirely different light.

I have long pushed an admittedly hard-to-sell theory that Bush wasn’t really dumb. There is a possibility he was something far worse. That he did exactly what he intended to do.

When people of goodwill see more than 4,200 young Americans killed in a totally unnecessary war or watch poor grandmothers and children clinging to rooftops as the rushing waters of Katrina rise and finally sweep them away, they see tragedy. But if you believe the only purpose of government is to increase the profits of wealthy Americans, you see opportunity.

It’s interesting the same private companies with ties to Vice President Dick Cheney that got no-bid, multibillion-dollar contracts to fail to rebuild Iraq got no-Dick Cheneybid, multibillion-dollar contracts to fail to rebuild New Orleans.

If you want to assure that government is not the solution to our problems, the best thing to do is to stock it with incompetent people.

Looked at that way, Brownie really was doing a “heckuva” job by ignoring the pleas of the dying in New Orleans and handing out government contracts for formaldehydeladen trailers that failed to provide safe emergency housing for the survivors.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was doing a bang-up job of demonstrating that no one in America should depend upon government in time of need. If we don’t expect government to do anything, then that means more big tax cuts for the wealthiest people in America.

It almost worked, too. Unfortunately for Bush and radical Republicans, the economic collapse they created through government incompetence came ahead of schedule. The country found itself on the brink of economic abyss during the last months of Bush’s administration instead of waiting until Bush had a chance to beat it out of town.

Out of great crises, great presidents are born. What made inauguration week so hopeful was not only that we had elected an extraordinarily bright, politically talented and inspirational president in time of great need. There was also a consensus among economic experts of all stripes and the American people that the president and the government should take an active role in providing for the common good. It’s a radical idea today, just as it was in 1776 when Americans first came up with it.

What’s your take?
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