What Does Obama Really Stand For: Community or Small Government?

Author: 
Jeff Madrick

The president's convention speech focused on the power of community, but the details of his future policies remain sketchy at best.

The president’s acceptance speech in Charlotte last week emphasized his new theme of community and "being in this together." For all its mushy sentiment, this is a major victory for those like us at Rediscovering Government who have been talking about the need to revitalize the discourse about government for quite some time.

Obama hesitated to sound such a theme in the past. He seemed to run from potential charges of class warfare or favoring big government. He failed to boast about his stimulus plan and some of his investment programs. He hardly talked about his health care program. The conversation in America has changed, of course, partly because of the vice presidential nomination of an extremist, Paul Ryan, who wants to cut government spending to 16 percent of GDP. That’s about the 1950s level. 

But Obama has been moving in this direction for quite a while now. He still avoids the word "government," preferring "community." But he also nicely introduced the word "citizenship." Among Ronald Reagan’s most damaging legacies was, I think, that he undermined the meaning of being a citizen in America. To him, we did not belong to a nation. We belonged only to ourselves. It would be nice to bring the concept of citizen back.

I can’t overemphasize how useful it was for Obama to lay out this old but now new vision. Bill Clinton, who had proudly proclaimed the end of big government in 1996, also said similar things. There is now a distinct us versus them as the election season begins. “Us” is those who want to work together. "Them” is those who treat community as a drug we'll become dependent on. It is probably no accident that the Republican ticket is composed of men descended from rich parents. Lots of rich kids become effective leaders, but many don’t understand how tough it can be to have no one to lean on, to borrow from (as Mitt now famously suggested), or even to be taught by.

But having listened closely to the Obama speech, I am still hungry for more candor. Even a few days later, I have no idea what Obama plans to do over the next four years. We know he will care, and we know he will not take a pound of flesh from the poor or strivers to the middle class if he can help it, but what do we know about his future programs?

He was about as careful as Romney and Ryan were in Tampa to avoid any specifics. Will he propose a new stimulus if the economy teeters, or will he remain dedicated to a narrow deficit-cutting plan even during a weak economy? Does he think there is anything truly commendable about the Simpson-Bowles deficit-cutting plan he had sponsored (if then mostly ignored)? The plan disastrously aims to limit federal spending to 21 percent of GDP, its 40 year- average, even as the population ages, health costs rise, and we know pre-K education is urgently needed. It would cut Social Security sharply. But Obama mentioned it in his speech, and it has become the widely cited “bipartisan” model for fiscal responsibility. The public relations program in its favor is a stunner. It is not really bipartisan at all, of course. Both the Democrat Bowles and the Republican Simpson are devoted and extreme deficit hawks.

What line will Obama hold on Social Security? Will he significantly upgrade his proposals to invest in infrastructure? How about a higher minimum wage? Better labor laws? Is there a potential jobs program in the works? Serious education reform? Will he encourage a lower dollar to help manufacturing and propose ways to create a more level playing field in global trade? Will he propose a serious tax increase to pay for needed public investment and buttress entitlements programs once the economy is righted?

I can’t say it’s bad politics to ignore the details for now. The best case for Obama is that as his health reform law helps more people, he will build American confidence in government. Mitt Romney has already conceded as much, saying he will retain some of Obamacare. With some proof that governmnet helps under his belt, perhaps Obama can move forward. He can add to his health care program with a true public option and perhaps expansion of Medicaid reimbursements to providers, which are too low. He can also adopt more rigid cost controls, drug negotiating procedures, and firmer preventive medicine incentives. A more positive attitude toward government might awaken fresh ideas about educational reform. Perhaps we can put art and music programs back into schools and tackle universal access to the web. Maybe we can even build a universal pre-K system that is cheap and good, one of our most important needs.

I know Romney has only one major idea in his head: tax cuts. If at first they don’t succeed, try again. But of course, tax cuts did succeed for the wealthy, just not for the “community” of America.

What’s really in Obama’s head? Is he a limited government man at bottom, just another Third Way New Democrat? Or is he really a community government man? I don’t know, and that bugs me. Moreover, I am not sure we will find out before Election Day.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.