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Obama's Speech and the Role of Government

Obama's Speech and the Role of Government

President Obama clearly believes that the government has a significant role to play in helping make life better for the citizens of the United States. It's clear, the more that I study his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, that he and his advisers also clearly understand that government involvement in citizens' lives is viewed with great trepidation by many segments of society, particularly his political opponents.

His speech was, therefore, carefully worded to recognize the fact that there is an argument about how active government should be in solving the nation's problems. Obama and his strategists are no doubt aware that they are threading the needle between their interest in using the government to ameliorate problems and the strong sentiment on the part of the Republicans that there needs to be less government.

It looks to me as if Obama and his speech writers spent a great deal of time crafting this particular passage from his speech:

I'm a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. That's why my education reform offers more competition, and more control for schools and states. That's why we're getting rid of regulations that don't work. That's why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a government program.

On the other hand, even my Republican friends who complain the most about government spending have supported federally financed roads, and clean energy projects, and federal offices for the folks back home.

The point is, we should all want a smarter, more effective government.

Note that this portion from the speech first set up homage to a Republican president (Lincoln), acknowledged that government should be used only where necessary, and gave several examples of where Obama claimed that he himself was cutting back on government involvement. This is a standard technique by which one disarms the competition by acknowledging the competition's position and acknowledging that it has elements of truth within it -- before moving on to press for one's own position.

Thus, Obama and his speech writers in the second part of the above very gently laid in their position -- that government performs needed functions in society. Even here, of course, the speech made sure to reference the fact that Republicans also support federal government spending in some situations.

At several other points in the speech, Obama also referenced the value of getting government involved in righting society's wrongs, including these:

And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock - reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

And while government can't fix the problem on its own, responsible homeowners shouldn't have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief.

The president's belief in the power of the government is also evident with this sentence from the speech: "With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow."

When he says "I will keep taking actions . . ." Obama, of course, means that he will direct the U.S. government to take actions. Obama clearly feels that this is what he is in the White House to do -- to use the government to fix problems and make things better.

And the major part of the president's speech, in fact, outlined proposals for ways in which the government should use its powers to make things better in society. Here are some of the major ones (for more on these and how they comport with public opinion, click here).

Using the government to bring about more economic fairness:

"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

Using the government's tax policy to change corporate decision-making on location of jobs:

"We should start with our tax code. Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas. Meanwhile, companies that choose to stay in America get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and everyone knows it. So let's change it."

Using the government to pressure China on trade:

"And I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules. We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration -- and it's made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires. But we need to do more. …

Tonight, I'm announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China."

Using the government to train workers:

"Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help."

Using the government to impact the flow of illegal immigrants into the country and the status of illegal immigrants already in the country:

"I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. … We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now."

Using the government to encourage oil and gas exploration:

"Over the last three years, we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. And tonight, I'm directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources."

Using the government to affect development of energy sources:

"This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy, a strategy that's cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs."

Using the government to fund construction, infrastructure projects:

"In the next few weeks, I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."

Using the government's tax code to affect income and wealth distribution:

"But in return, we need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes.

Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule: If you make more than a million dollars a year, you should not pay less than 30% in taxes. …

On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98% of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up. You're the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You're the ones who need relief."

In general, Obama and his strategists recognized that his listing of these types of government programs needed to be surrounded with caveats and explicit recognition of the fact that some people in the country are not in favor of more or larger government programs.

As I noted above, Obama first clearly acknowledged that Republicans and others in the country disagree on the degree to which government should be used as the tool to solve problems and produce more desirable outcomes.

Then, the Obama team had to come to terms in the speech with a second problem. That's the fact that a great deal of survey research shows that Americans have very little confidence in the government at this point to do anything well, even if they philosophically agree that government, in theory, should be doing things when asked about them on a one-by-one basis.

But no matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right about now: Nothing will get done in Washington this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.

Why is Washington broken?

First Obama references the fact that Americans are negative on the process by which the federal government operates and makes decisions -- fitting in with the fact that Congress is at or near its all-time lowest approval ratings:

Some of this has to do with the corrosive influence of money in politics. So together, let's take some steps to fix that. Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress; I will sign it tomorrow. Let's limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact. Let's make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can't lobby Congress, and vice versa -- an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington.

Some of what's broken has to do with the way Congress does its business these days. A simple majority is no longer enough to get anything -- even routine business -- passed through the Senate. Neither party has been blameless in these tactics. Now both parties should put an end to it. For starters, I ask the Senate to pass a simple rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days.

Then, Obama acknowledged a second reason that government appears to be broken -- the perceived inefficiency of government:

The executive branch also needs to change. Too often, it's inefficient, outdated and remote. That's why I've asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy, so that our government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people.

That's all he said on this, but presumably his reference to the executive branch includes all of the Cabinet departments and thus most of everything that gets done in government. This carries within it the seeds of paradox. Obama is asking Americans to trust him to use the government to fix problems, while acknowledging that the government itself needs to be fixed, since it is "inefficient, outdated, and remote."

Obama did announce some steps to fix the government. The consolidation plans he has announced so far, however, are hardly the stuff of a massive overhaul of the way government works. Not that such a massive overhaul would be possible.

So, the president has to argue on the one hand that the government is an effective means to address the nation's problems, particularly economic problems (with relevant caveats about philosophic disagreements on this with the Republicans), while on the other hand acknowledging that Americans see the government as inefficient and outdated. That's, in many ways, the core of his re-election strategy challenge.

Obama and his speech writers did clearly recognize one major exception to Americans' views that the government is inefficient and ineffective. That's the U.S. military, in which the public has more confidence than in any other institution in the country at this point.

Obama and his speech began his speech with broad accolades for the military. These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America's Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.

And he ended with the military:

And, which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who've been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops.

This connection with the very well-regarded military is a very shrewd element of the speech. Of course the challenge is figuring out a way to put into place lessons learned from the military in the current Washington and government environment.

Although headline writers emphasized the "fairness" aspect of Obama's State of the Union speech, it's likely that this "appropriate role of government" is the most lasting and important theme. This is really a core debate, one that it appears Obama has thought long and hard about. His argument that it's philosophically appropriate that government be involved in the workings of today's economic and social state is fairly straightforward. His recognition that Americans perceive that the government simply doesn't work very well -- regardless of one's philosophic position -- is acknowledgement of a tougher, more complex problem.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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