CHICAGO – Here’s my advice to Sen. Barack Obama’s supporters: Stop predicting that the Democrats will sweep into the White House and Congress come January with a mandate to expand Big Government.
That prospect, coupled with some of your candidate’s own tax and health-care plans, could scare swing voters you need next Tuesday.
Even if Obama wins, those voters won’t give him the benefit of the doubt he’ll need to govern as the “uniter” he claims to be.
Obama needs to underscore — there's no risk of doing it too much — that he doesn’t like government for its own sake, but for the sake of individuals and families.
He has to keep explaining that he wants to put money in a hundred million pockets and purses (except for those of the top 5 percent or so whom he'd have pay more in taxes) so that all of us, even the rich, can benefit from a thriving economy. He has to make sure that he isn’t advocating government-run — in contrast to government-aided — health care.
On these and other issues, he also needs to reassure voters that he will not necessarily march in lockstep with resurgent Democrats who will want to launch a top-to-bottom New New Deal and reverse the Reagan Revolution 28 years after it took place.
Obama’s rhetoric and proposals are careful to acknowledge history, including Reagan's influence. Obama's for tax cuts, he says, more than tax increases. He’s for helping folks get more health care, not for mandating that they get it. He's for regulating Wall Street more, but not necessarily more than even the Bush administration is now proposing.
In the country, and much of the world, we’ve long since decided that the State with a capital “S” is not the answer to the longings of the human soul. That was the struggle of the 20th century and its wars, cold and hot. We stood for freedom more than the State, which is what we have supported for more than two centuries.
And yet, we are a practical people. We know that we need government. In one way or another, almost every American politician is or was a “redistributionist.” We do it all the time. Redistributing is a good bit of what government in fact does, for better or worse.
Every time we monkey with the tax code or federal spending we are “redistributing” benefits —whether it is to welfare recipients or to the top bracket, or to one region or industry versus another.
It’s just that we don’t like to admit it, because it undercuts the cherished idea that we are frontier individualists, forging our destiny through the exercise of our brains, will and God-given freedom.
We are not always willing to acknowledge a competing idea that also lies deep in the American grain: that a rising tide lifts all boats (as Jack Kennedy said), and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to assist those who need help just to enter the game, let alone win it.
Selling Uncle Sam
The trick in American politics has always been to sell government as a tool for enhancing the power and prospects of the individual. That is how we’ve sold ourselves on the need to pay for (that is, pay taxes for) everything from roads and bridges in the 19th century to higher education, job-training and Social Security in the 20th century.
Now, Obama is suggesting, it’s time for some 21st-century targeted government.
He has to remember to keep it targeted, especially since we have spent ourselves into near bankruptcy as a country and as a people.
It’s easy to ridicule Sen. John McCain’s late-in-the-game effort to paint Obama as a “socialist.” Obama is no socialist. But he does believe in a more activist government than has been espoused in this country since the days of Lyndon Johnson.
Obama and his strategists understood that there was danger in this and designed their campaign to avoid it. His tax plan, for example, accepts, at least in theory, the basic precept of the Reagan Revolution, which is that cutting taxes is good for economic growth. Those who did research for him, many from the New America Foundation, searched for third-way market solutions to social problems.
But McCain was right to raise the question about just how much government Obama really wants.
It may be too late to do McCain much good, but not too early for Obama to ask himself that same question.