By David Gregory Chief White House correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/9/2005 7:26:02 PM ET 2005-02-10T00:26:02

It was unexpected from a Democrat, but it was President Bill Clinton who said, "The era of big government is over!" at his 1996 State of the Union address.

That was before George W. Bush came to town.

"The Republicans are centralizing power, they're growing the bureaucracy, they're growing the budget, and they're taking rights away from the states," says James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

You wouldn't have any idea the deficit is over $400 billion from the way the president talks.

"America's prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government," said Bush last week in his State of the Union address.

Many conservative Republicans — the champions of small, limited federal government and the president's base — argue Bush is not following his own advice.

And it's not just the soaring price of Medicare under this president, but other big spending like:

  • The creation of the Homeland Security Department;
  • The farm bill of 2002, which conservatives considered a runaway train;
  • More money for education;
  • The 2006 budget's call to boost the amount of foreign aid.

Conservative activists like Stephen Moore are agitated.

"Unfortunately, even under a Republican Congress and a Republican president in George W. Bush, the federal government has expanded at a faster pace than any president since Lyndon Johnson," says Moore, a former director at the conservative Cato Institute.

Beyond the growth of government, the Bush White House has made government more involved in people's lives — intrusive, conservatives say — something they consider taboo. The president wants a Constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. Many conservatives support that too, but in the process, say the White House is interfering with states' rights. Or take education: The federal government now wants to extend accountability standards on states through high school — again, normally the state's turf.

Some argue that by making government bigger and more activist, the president has attracted new supporters. But at what cost?

"I think what's going to happen is that the president's going to have a difficulty putting his agenda through Congress if the conservatives have a rebellion," says Thurber. "And it looks like they're going to have a rebellion."

There is still room for redemption. Some conservatives insist the president could succeed in restructuring the tax code and Social Security and he could veto any spending bill that gets out of hand.

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