President Barack Obama has yet to adopt a slogan for his 2012 reelection bid, but he does seem to be warming up to a theme, or at least a formula: Spending equals greatness.
That's not to say the president does not realize spending restraint is necessary to avoid a fiscal crisis. Rather -- at least based on a reemerging theme -- Obama seems to think American greatness is directly tied to government spending.
Most recently, on April 28 in New York, Obama told his base at a fundraising event of the Democratic National Committee, "I'm not going to reduce our deficit by sacrificing the things that always made up great as a people."
Those would be what? He continued, "I'm not going to sacrifice investments in education. I'm not going to make scholarships harder to get and more expensive for young people. I'm not going to sacrifice the safety of our highways or our airports. I'm not going to sacrifice clean air and clean water. I'm not going to sacrifice clean energy at a time when we need to free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil, and folks are getting killed at the pump."
"Investments" are another name for spending. But the federal government did not "always" spend money on those things that have "always made America great."
"There's more than one way to mortgage America's future," Obama continued at the New York event. "We mortgage that future if we don't get a handle on our deficit and debt, but we also mortgage it if we're not investing in those things that will assure the promise of the American Dream for the next generation."
Thus, the American Dream cannot be accomplished without government spending?
This was an extension of what Obama said when he delivered his alternative fiscal plan to Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal, talking specifically about Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.
"We are a better country because of these commitments," Obama told a crowd on April 13 at George Washington University. "I'll go further -- we would not be a great country without those commitments."
An audacious statement considering two of those programs -- Medicare and Medicaid -- did not exist before 1965. Social Security and unemployment insurance were products of the New Deal. So what of the United States from 1776 to 1935? It was OK, but then really became great after the Great Society?
To be clear, in the GWU speech, and the several others at DNC events, he acknowledged American individualism and entrepreneurship as a factor in America's greatness.
"The America we know is great not because of our skyscrapers or the size of our GDP," Obama told a DNC gathering on April 21 in San Francisco. "It's because we've been able to keep two ideas together at the same time. The first idea is that we are all individuals endowed with certain inalienable rights and liberties; that we are self-reliant; we are entrepreneurs. We don't expect others to do for us what we can do for ourselves, and we don't really like people telling us what to do. But the second idea, just as important is that we're all in this together; that we look out for one another; that I am my brother's keeper; that I am my sister's keeper."
That is a fair and even moral point that most Americans should agree with, aside from the debate on what role the federal government has in achieving being our brother's keeper. But the president has effectively said America would not be great without New Deal or Great Society programs that are less than a century old. Such thinking sounds almost like a conservative parody of liberalism.
The next day in Culver City, Calif., Obama pushed the message that America could not be prosperous without government spending.
"But let me tell you something. I will not reduce our deficit by sacrificing the things that have always made America great, the things that have made Americans prosper," the president said, before talking again of "investments" in education, scientific research, green energy and highway safety.
As with any president, Obama can and should push his own budget priorities, but the pattern of revealing statements about the centrality of government spending to all that is right and good should paint a compelling contrast for budget fight and the 2012 contest.
National security has understandably stolen away most of the recent headlines, and Obama is taking a well-deserved victory lap on that front in the midst of a rightfully euphoric country.
But the troublesome fiscal mess will take center stage again soon, and Obama is perhaps understating things when he says it's about two competing visions for America. He frames the Ryan view as "a shrunken image of America that says we can't afford to do those things anymore; that America just doesn't do big things anymore."
Sure, government can do big things like win World Wars I and II, land on the moon and kill Osama bin Laden. But based on recent assertions, Obama has completely forgot that the marketing of the automobile, inventing television, inventing the airplane and the discovery and later marketing of electrical power -- all done outside of government -- are not only big things, but have led to much prosperity and yes, even greatness.
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