An inaugural address is a new president’s best opportunity to put forward his vision of government. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson proposed an expansion of the federal role to counter economic and racial injustice: “In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty,” he declared. In 1981, Ronald Reagan called for a rollback of Johnson’s Great Society: “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed,” he contended.
Reagan didn’t really make the federal government smaller, but he did check its growth. Every president since has searched for some way to tackle problems without making government bigger. In 1989, George H.W. Bush exhorted voluntarism, or, as he put it, “a thousand points of light.” In 1993, Bill Clinton proposed a new social compact in which government would “offer more opportunity to all and demand responsibility from all.” In 2001, George W. Bush reprised his father’s theme of altruism, noting that “compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government.”
In 2009, looking out over the largest crowd ever assembled in Washington, D.C., Barack Obama framed the issue in terms of simple efficacy. “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,” he said. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
This view is in keeping with Obama’s nonideological approach to politics. To most of those listening, it surely came across as an expression of our new president’s unsentimental good sense. Yet on rereading the speech in the less euphoric light of the next day, that passage seemed insufficient as a governing philosophy and, if taken for one, rather troubling. “Whatever works” is less a vision of the public sector’s proper role than a place-holder for someone who has yet to figure out what he thinks that role should be.
Obama’s pragmatic liberalism risks blurring execution with intention, means with ends. To take his illustrations, either it is up to the commonweal to provide a minimum income to retired people, to offer health insurance to everybody, and to increase income equality—or it isn’t. Most liberals would say these are legitimate responsibilities of government. Most conservatives would argue that they aren’t. On income security for the elderly, we’ve had an overall social consensus since the New Deal. On health care, a consensus may be emerging after decades of national ambivalence. When it comes to growing income inequality, a newer problem, there is no consensus at all. But we must decide what government’s goals are before considering the subordinate questions of what works and how much we can afford.
Where government cannot do something more effectively than the private sector, such as allocate private capital to maximize economic growth, it shouldn’t try. But more often, we face a complicated interplay of social ills and imperfect government responses. There are programs that succeed, programs that fail, and lots in between. The same program can work and not work at different times. Social Security flourished for decades, became unsustainably costly in the 1970s, was restored to viability in the 1980s, and has since become problematic again. That the programs that constitute the war on drugs have mostly failed isn’t a decisive argument for legalizing heroin and cocaine.
Obama’s vagueness about the federal role comes at a moment when clarity is especially needed. Our government is about to become bigger, more powerful, and more expensive to deal with a sprawling economic crisis. Washington will take on responsibilities it hasn’t shouldered in 75 years, such as directly alleviating unemployment and perhaps nationalizing banks. Many who would ordinarily reject such interventions on principle can justify them as misery relief, Keynesian stimulus, or emergency management. But some see in the expansion something further-reaching—a redefinition of the government’s relationship to markets transcending the current crisis.
A president facing this situation needs to know what’s temporary and what’s permanent, if only because of the tendency for the one to become the other. Urgent measures are liable to stick around long after the precipitating emergency is passed. There aren’t many American homes left without electricity, but we retain a renamed version of the Rural Electrification Administration, a program initiated by Franklin Roosevelt as part of the New Deal. The Tennessee Valley Authority, created in 1933 to modernize a backward region of the country still afflicted by malaria, remains with us as well. Expanding government is easy—shrinking it nearly impossible.
On the broader question of what Washington should and shouldn’t do, Obama remains hard to read. He inclines simultaneously toward activist government and limited government, which is a tension, though not a contradiction. He favors universal health coverage, but without government taking direct responsibility for it. He is poised to propose cutbacks in our most expensive entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, to ensure their survival. Language elsewhere in his inaugural address suggests that he sees government as guarantor of opportunity rather than a provider of benefits, more Clinton’s way than LBJ’s.
But as he navigates the crisis, Obama would do well to figure out what he thinks about the fundamental question of government’s role. He might begin by pondering some words of his model Abraham Lincoln, who in 1854 wrote, “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.” Obama’s test of practicality comes after Lincoln’s test of principle.
A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.