On issue after issue, President Obama is locked in a struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people. At issue—transcending health care reform, economic stimulus, the bailout of banks and automakers, and beyond—is the role of government in our society.
The president is well aware of the terms of this struggle. As he told NBC News in September, “It’s an argument that’s gone on for the history of this republic, and that is, ‘What’s the right role of government? How do we balance freedom with our need to look out for one another?’ . . . This is not a new argument, and it always evokes passions.”
Most Americans carry around at least two stories of government in their heads. One is the story of government as problem solver, as fair referee, and as investor in shared prosperity. It is the government of first responders, of Iwo Jima, of gifted teachers, Head Start and Social Security. The other story is of government as bloated bureaucracy, as tax-and-spender, as bungler, and as rights violator. It is the government of the DMV, of Vietnam, of lazy teachers, of FEMA and Hurricane Katrina. More important than ideology for these Americans is how facts on the ground seem to reaffirm one story or the other.
This president is better equipped than most to make the case that government can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. He is a gifted orator who came to power at a time of dire crisis that screamed for federal intervention. And, increasingly, he has the evidence to show how that intervention is helping to bring the nation back from the brink of financial meltdown.
But actions speak louder than words. Nothing the President can say will speak as loudly as the message sent by a state dinner that can be crashed by reality show wannabes, or by economic stimulus reporting riddled with silly errors, or by a missed deadline to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility—the first promise of his presidency. Those missteps vary in their importance, but each speaks loudly in the court of public opinion, eroding public confidence in the practical ability of government to do anything well.
The stakes of the government debate soared even higher this week, as the President announced plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and as he prepares for a jobs summit on Thursday. The public’s willingness to wait for progress on these dual fronts—which will take many months under the best of circumstances—will depend in large part on their belief in the competence of this administration to make the trains run on time. Mistakes will no doubt occur. But the political success of this president may be determined in the coming months by whether his government is characterized by the popular and high-profile “cash for clunkers” program, or is just seen as a clunker.