Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Obama on the size of Government

Obama’s rhetorical skill is often commented on in terms of its prose and poetry. In that he is indeed a rare breed of politician, but it’s also not that useful a skill. Any politician of merit has speech writers who can add such gloss to their words, and whilst Obama certainly established a bond with the voters at his rally through his eloquent language, the difficult and much more politically important part was to get them there in the first place. His prose is nice, but only as a topping. What is then often missed is how Obama is very good at noting the opposing arguments, faithfully describing them (unlike a lot of politicians especially his predecessor Bush) and re-butting them. Take this discussion from his recent Press Conference on government involvement in the auto industry:

Question: Thank you, sir. You are currently the chief shareholder of a couple of very large mortgage giants. You’re about to become the chief shareholder of a car company, probably two.

And I’m wondering, what kind of shareholder are you going to be? What is the government’s role as the keeper of public — public trust and bonds in — in soon-to-be public companies again? Thank you.

Obama: Well, I think our — our first role should be shareholders that are looking to get out. You know, I don’t want to run auto companies. I don’t want to run banks. I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already. I’ve got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we’re going to be.
We are in unique circumstances. You had the potential collapse of the financial system, which would have decimated our economy, and so we had to step in.
So I just want to help them get there. But I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector, if — if you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.
And — and that’s why I’m always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, “Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government.” No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that’s not the hand that’s been dealt us.

Obama is making the obvious point that he has a chocked full agenda, but he’s also making an important point which politicians and pundits on the left almost never do, and note that there is nothing inherently good about increasing the size of government from a liberal perspective. Making government larger is not a good in and of itself for the Left. Instead there is the recognition that government can be a force for good, and is sometimes the only way to deal with certain issues, and as such ought to be involved. These are issue specific however and towards clear principled goals such as guaranteeing universal healthcare and education standards, providing defence of the country, etc. The left, and those of us with a Liberal view in particular would love a government which had very low tax levels and largely didn’t bother people. But so long as there are specific problems such as people not being able to get basic healthcare because of their low income (or simply surviving if they don’t have a job), then government is needed to address the problem. If that could be done with small government and low taxes, great, but no way has been found, hence the support for government intervention. Government involvement is simply a means, not an end for the left.

Whilst I can understand the need to defend the role of government from the traditional right wing attacks on it, particularly after the emergence of the New Right, lead by figures such as Ronald Reagan (“The nine most dangerous words in the english language are ‘I’m from the Government and I’m here to help'”; Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them; Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets. etc), the left takes a daily beating from the right & dissuades others from joining its ranks because it is held that expanding government is a principle or goal of the left. It isn’t, and however much you go through the literature by modern or classic left wing thinkers within the western democratic-capitalist tradition, you will never find any advocating the growth of government as a good in and of itself. Instead, what you will find are specific issue related arguments for using government where no other option is viable or able to fulfill the principles and priorities of the society.

Obama would have watched and seen the tea-bag rallies, and here, in the context of joking about how much else he has to do, he is also sending out a little message to those who attended the rallies: ‘hey, I agree with you. But circumstances have forced our hand’. Obama knows that if the economic debate is about Big Government vs Small Government, he & the left will get beaten. But if the debate is about specific policy measures to respond to the debate, then he will win and win big (indeed the polls indicate people are rewarding his administration for being seen to act & punishing Republicans for not having clear policy responses).

The public largely doesn’t care about size, but there is a natural and usually wise concern about government ever getting too big, too large. Liberals and the Left have spent the better part of the twentieth century defending their policies against Conservatives who have sought to use this public suspicions to further their own policy agenda. Whilst this dynamic won’t significantly change, the left could benefit from occasionally noting as Obama did on Wednesday that they too share the publics concern about the size of government, and have no generalised desire to grow government as a policy end. Not only would this help shift the debate to specifics, and take some of the wind out of those who are concerned about such principles, and help convince more liberals that they can support and even get involved with left wing political parties.

Obama won unending praise for his lofty rhetoric, but he won independent and conservative voters support because he was able to recognise their concerns, identify areas of common agreement (in this case that neither want government running the auto companies), and then suggest why his policy response were the best response for the problem. He is in many ways a typical, orthodox Liberal, but because of this rhetorical effort, he makes liberalism seem like pragmatism, whilst sidestepping some of the baggage that has hampered the efforts of his fellow left wing politicians. That is his real linguistic ability, and one far too rarely noticed by the press.

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