The Big Idea

Make It Stop!

How Obama can get behind the idea of limited government.

Amid the right’s hysterical repudiation of everything President Obama has done or wants to do, one legitimate concern stands out: that Washington will grow without limits. The federal government’s size, scope, and power have historically taken big leaps in reaction to war and financial crisis. It’s not unreasonable to worry that, in responding to the biggest economic slump since the Great Depression while fighting two wars, the United States will find itself with a more expensive, more intrusive public sector and a less free and dynamic private one.

Politically, the backlash against expanding centralized government is hardly a new problem for Democrats. In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a largely class-based reaction to the New Deal’s extension of Washington’s role into social insurance, regional development, and last-resort employment. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson was confronted with a racially tinged reaction against his use of federal power to fight poverty and advance civil rights. Since California passed Proposition 13 in 1978, distrust of government has been a primary driver of Republican advantage and a dagger pointed at Democrats, who have only really thrived when they took calls to limit government seriously.

Our last Democratic president was a reformist, lean-government liberal who favored federal activism in a context of personal and fiscal responsibility. But because of his initial fumble with health care and a deficit reduction plan wrongly portrayed as an expansion of government, Bill Clinton was miscast by the right as a conventional, tax-and-spend liberal. Only after losing the Congress in 1994 did Clinton declare that “the era of big government is over,” sign welfare reform, and explicitly embrace balanced budgets. Once he established his seriousness about self-restraint and limits, however, he thrived politically—at least until Monica Lewinsky came by his office bearing an extra-large pizza.

President Obama says the issue isn’t how big government is but whether it works. But size matters too. A government that constitutes half of a country’s economy, like those in Western Europe, produces a very different society over time than one that eats up only a third of the economy. Obama may have assumed that hard times and the clear imperative for a strong response to the financial crisis would suspend the underlying dynamic of suspicion toward Washington. If so, he misjudged something fundamental about American political culture. Even now that the fear of excessive, irreversible public-sector growth has provoked an agenda-stalling backlash and resulted in serious people claiming that his proposals equate to socialism, Obama has yet to clarify his ambiguous view of government’s role.

How, at this late stage, might a Democratic president go about establishing himself as a limited-government liberal? As a younger, more idealistic journalist, I wrote a book trying to square my belief in federal activism with a commitment to limited government. In the 15 years since, my advice hasn’t much changed (or been taken). New Democrats and Blue Dogs aside, the party’s congressional leadership has never really recognized that the problem of government excess and failure is grounded in reality as well as in the other side’s distortions and misperceptions.

At this point, Obama and the Democrats may be destined to learn the old lesson once again. But if they hope to avoid a repeat of Clinton’s 1994 fate in 2010, the president and his party might think about fixing a long-term upper limit on the size of government. Because of the bank bailouts and stimulus, federal spending will exceed 25 percent of GDP this year, and public spending at all levels will exceed 44 percent. But if liberals were clear that, in normal times, federal spending shouldn’t be more than 22 percent and that the public sector as a whole shouldn’t exceed a third of GDP—the level during Clinton’s second term—the fear of Democrats covertly foisting a social-democratic model on America would begin to melt away. This kind of ceiling would mean that government couldn’t grow at the expense of the economy, because it couldn’t grow faster than the economy as a whole. To substantiate his commitment, Obama should unilaterally propose large, specific cuts in programs and subsidies to be phased in as the need for stimulus spending recedes. Raising the retirement age, privatizing space exploration, and eliminating agriculture subsidies would make a decent start. 

Beyond actually endorsing smaller government, Obama could identify himself with wiser government by developing the responsibility theme he sounded in his inaugural address but has returned to infrequently in the period since. Health care reform based on an individual mandate is a good example of government linking a private duty to a public benefit, but Obama hasn’t emphasized this “values” aspect of the plan. Another example might be to require public service work in exchange for extended unemployment benefits, on the principle of welfare reform. A nicotine-addicted president should also steer clear of paternalistic, class-tinged policies like taxing soft drinks. Letting personal behavior that doesn’t harm others slide means recognizing another kind of limit on government. 

There’s a risk of harming the country by failing to address fundamental threats and problems—which is where current Republican policies would leave us. There’s also a risk of Democrats responding in a way that leaves behind more government than we want or need. Obama could help himself by letting people know he’s worried about that danger too.

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