By Gil Troy, History News Network, 9-10-09
In his Wednesday night speech to a joint session of Congress, Barack Obama sought the perfect formula to express American attitudes toward big government. In 1981 Ronald Reagan proclaimed “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” In 1996 after his health care reform bill failed Bill Clinton declared “the era is big government is over.” “[O]ur predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem,” Obama said, riffing off of Reagan’s critique. “They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited.”
President Obama’s balance showed he understood better than most Congressional liberals the long history of American ambivalence regarding just how big government should be. As I argue in “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” just published by Oxford University Press, when Ronald Reagan was born in 1911, America’s federal government was still too small to be either the problem or the solution. The Progressive movement was, however, thriving, laying the groundwork for what would be Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, then Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. But Reagan was born into an American regime more scaled to the limited government of America’s Founders when they established the Constitution in 1787 than it was to the welfare state he would preside over from1981 to 1989.
Although the American Revolution was far less radical than the French or Russian Revolutions, Americans did rebel against executive power. The Revolutionaries’ experience with the King of England – and his colonial governors – soured a generation on strong, centralized government. The younger men of the revolution such as Alexander Hamilton, who assisted George Washington in fighting the war, better understood the need for effective government. They pushed for the new Constitution in 1787, replacing the Articles of Confederation that bore the mark of the revolutionary struggle by keeping the national government weaker than the states, and the executive impotent compared to the Congress.
Still, the Constitution established a federal government that was not supposed to overwhelm either “We the People” or “these United States.” Moreover, a strong ethos of self-sufficiency reigned. People were supposed to take care of themselves, especially considering America’s riches.
By 1980, Americans were ambivalent. They retained enough of their historic fear of executive power to dislike big government in theory. But after nearly fifty years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deals and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Americans were addicted to many of the government programs that together made their government big, their tax bills high, their bureaucracy dense but their lives easier and their society more just. The Reagan Revolution played on the frustrations and tried to end this addiction, to no avail.
The post-Reagan standoff developed. Democrats often miscalculated by overlooking the growing, historically-rooted, backlash against big government. Republicans usually erred by overstepping and eliminating essential programs that Americans now took for granted.
As a candidate, Barack Obama invoked Reagan as a talisman – and a standard. While disagreeing with Reagan’s program, Obama envied Reagan’s impact. Obama wanted to be as “transformational” a president as Reagan and considered his two Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, failures. During the Obama administration’s first heady months, the media, popular and congressional lovefest seemed to be propelling Obama into Reagan’s league as a consequential president. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel conveyed the scope of Obama’s ambition by admitting: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Suddenly this summer, the Reagan comparisons became more sobering, more a curse than a blessing. Reagan’s Revolution lost tremendous momentum its first summer. After peaking in August, 1981, with the signing of a major tax cut and the showdown with striking air traffic controllers, Reagan started meeting major congressional resistance. Having visited home during their summer recess, members of Congress returned to Washington worried about the economy and blaming the new president rather than his predecessor for what they started calling the “Reagan Recession.” Looking back, we can now realize that Ronald Reagan made his biggest impact in his first seven and a half months as president. Republicans and Democrats then spent the next seven and a quarter years scrambling on the new Reaganized line of scrimmage without major losses or gains for either side. And – Obama take note – Reagan learned he could have more impact by playing to the center than by pleasing his ideological allies.
History is not a DVD: conditions vary, outcomes are not repeatable. The Obama administration should learn from Reagan’s sobering summer as well as his stunning spring. But even more important, Obama and his Democratic allies must decode the mixed message Americans have long been broadcasting about government, as they essentially say, “yes” to goodies that work for them, but “no” when too many goodies for too many create a government that seems just too big and too threatening to individual freedom.