Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Blank Check for Big Government?

Timothy Sherratt


January 30, 2009

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama promised to harness old and true values to new instruments in order to face new challenges and remake America. He urged struggle, sacrifice and risk-taking. The speech was short on inspiration and free of acrimony. The president chastised individual villains for their greed but also urged his audience to assume a collective guilt for failing to make “hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

The faces of the audience registered exuberance and ambivalence. Eager to celebrate, the speech offered them few invitations to do so. There was much to celebrate as an African-American took the oath, bringing to a climax the long trajectory from slavery to emancipation, through segregation to Brown v Board of Education, and from the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. to the hope symbolized in Barack Obama. But the president let the spectacle speak for itself. He stood at the podium symbolizing the distance his country has traveled but he offered the assembled multitudes only blood, sweat and tears. Surely some racist barriers crumbled, surely the moment redeemed some past agonies, and surely future generations will affirm January 20, 2009 as a seminal moment in America’s remaking. But how does that redemption speak to, let alone face down, the “tyranny of the urgent” presented by the economic crisis?

The largely trans-partisan tone of the speech has persisted. To be sure, progressive forces must be pleased, and traditionalist ones proportionally outraged, by his removal of the global gag rule on abortion funding. But the president has flattered the Republicans by proposing something very like a troop surge in Afghanistan, while preparing for a transition out of Iraq whose timetable cannot be far from theirs. And he has freed the GOP from the stigma of their latter-day experiments with government intervention in the banking crisis by hinting at much more drastic measures, even nationalization.

President Obama insists that politics as usual has had its day. “What the cynics fail to understand,” he said, “is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

If the president can take anything to the bank from the inauguration, it is his popularity, a power that will see Members of Congress checking who is more popular in their home districts. Add to this the economic crisis, the historical character of Obama’s election, and the bankruptcy of his opponents, and pragmatism—“whether it works”—may easily become a blank check for big government.

The president is calm, intelligent, pragmatic—and a progressive. Progressives turn to government because they do not trust markets and non-government institutions to generate the public good progressives want to achieve. In contrast, conservatives show too much faith in those institutions, forgetting that all human agencies, including markets, are inherently corruptible and that the importance of limiting government does not cancel out these universal tendencies to corruption. For now, the political pendulum has swung in a progressive direction so Democratic impatience can pass itself off as a rational response to the failures of the marketplace.

President Obama has shown himself eager to engage in unusual government interventions in the short term. He faces the difficult task of figuring out how government can best support, and in some cases restore to health, not only economic institutions but also families, religious communities, and other non-government agencies. Whatever he decides to do in the short term, government alone cannot fix what ails America—and the president seems to grasp this. But restoring civil society will take more than rhetoric. It calls for respecting the independent character and irreplaceable roles that all of these organizations and institutions play.

—Timothy Sherratt, Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”