What “Only A Nation Can Do”

When Sen. Judd Gregg finally decided this week that he should stay in the fold of conservative Republican obstructionists in the Senate rather than on the side of moving the country forward, it was apparent he could not bring himself to embrace the progressive vision of government that President Obama laid out at at a Lincoln Day commemoration Thursday night.

Even as Obama engages in overtures to the right that have been more often than not maddening and counterproductive, it is important to remember that at his ideological core Obama has made the most dramatic break in a generation from the government-is-the-problem ideology of Ronald Reagan.

The contrast between Obama’s speech at the Abraham Lincoln Association annual banquet in Springfield, Ill., and Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address is striking:

Reagan, talking about the crushing combination of recession and inflation that he faced as he became president:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. …

If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. … It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

Obama, addressing an even deeper economic crisis, reached back to President Lincoln:

“The legitimate object of government,” he wrote, “is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves.”

To do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot do on their own. It’s a simple statement. But it answers a central question of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Why did he land on the side of union? What was it that made him so unrelenting in pursuit of victory that he was willing to test the Constitution he ultimately preserved? What was it that led this man to give his last full measure of devotion so that our nation might endure?

… I suspect that his devotion to the idea of union came not from a belief that government always had the answer. It came not from a failure to understand our individual rights and responsibilities. … He recognized that while each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can, be as responsible as we can, although we are responsible for our own fates, in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do.

From this way of thinking, Obama said, came the Homestead Act, land-grant colleges, the intercontinental railroad, the creation of a National Academy of Sciences, and the later policy initiatives that helped lift the nation out of the Great Depression and, through the GI Bill after World War II, sparked the creation of the modern middle class. These were successes that Reagan could not bring himself to champion in his first speech as president.

While agreeing that government in past eras has “at times done things that people can—and should—do for themselves,” Obama said conservatism has taken us too far in the opposite direction:

What’s dominated is a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way; that if government were just dismantled and divvied up into tax breaks, that it would somehow benefit us all. Such knee-jerk disdain for government — this constant rejection of any common endeavor — cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges. It can’t refurbish our schools or modernize our health care system. It can’t lead to the next medical discovery or yield the research and technology that will spark a clean energy economy.

Only a nation can do those things. Only by coming together, all of us, in union, and expressing that sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility — for ourselves, yes, but also for one another — can we do the work that must be done in this country. That is part of the definition of being American.

Reagan, to be fair, in his inaugural speech gave a nod to “making government work,” but he saw government as a beast to be constrained, a foe to be vanquished, not an asset that belongs to the people that can and must be harnessed to work for our collective good—to, as Obama said in his speech, rebuild the economy so that workers can find jobs and businesses can find capital, so that we have clean energy to fuel homes and industry, so that we have schools that prepare our children for tomorrow’s competitive global landscape. Obama summed it up this way:

It’s only by coming together to do what people need done that we will, in Lincoln’s words, “lift artificial weights from all shoulders [and give] an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” That’s all people are looking for, a fair chance in the race of life.

In the coming days, Obama will have tremendous political challenges building on the economic recovery package he is expected to sign next week. Not only will there be battles over the 2010 budget, but the long-term battle to define “fiscal responsibility” beyond the current crisis, in which the vision of the Judd Greggs of the world—limit government in both its size and vision, and continue to to cast it as an enemy of individual liberty—must confront the vision Obama laid out of a government that sees itself as the vehicle we the people use to ensure we all have that fair chance in the race of life. Obama will need lots of support—and occasional prodding—to keep true to this sea-change in the country’s ideological direction.


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