WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Americans have been skeptical of big government since George Washington’s time more than two centuries ago. The question for President Barack Obama is whether that flinty view is softening given the country’s deep problems.
Voters who propelled Obama into office and give him a 60 percent approval rating are nervous and a climate of fear has spread upon the land. More than 4 million people have lost their jobs. Retirement investments have been shredded.
Millions have no health insurance. Titans of industry from car makers to department stores are in danger of toppling. Each day brings more bad news, of stock market plunges and home loans gone bad.
Given the desperation of the times, are Americans willing to accept big government to the rescue? In some cases, yes, but the inherent skepticism lives on, experts say.
“The public disposition has always been to be skeptical about big government,” said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
“But given the magnitude of the problems we face, my guess is they’re willing to try a bigger role for government than they would if we were living in normal times,” he said.
Obama launched an effort to gain congressional passage of a major overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system last week, saying rising costs were a drag on the battered U.S. economy.
A bigger government role in healthcare is likely if the initiative is approved in a country where private insurance companies hold sway and want to hang on to their market.
ONE PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
Healthcare is only one piece of the puzzle. Obama’s proposed $3.55 trillion 2010 budget blueprint expands spending on greater energy independence and education.
A $787 billion economic stimulus plan approved by the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress includes $500 billion in spending projects and money for social programs like Medicaid health insurance for the poor.
Republicans philosophically opposed to bigger government and more spending were virtually in lockstep against the stimulus bill and have been trying to slow down $410 billion budget legislation to fund programs to the end of the fiscal year because of thousands of pet projects attached to it.
Historian Douglas Brinkley said “whenever the economy goes to tatters” Americans put their trust in government to a higher degree.
But he said a concern for Obama is whether Americans become so weary of big bank bailouts that they lose their patience for greater government involvement in areas where they would likely see more direct personal benefit, such as healthcare or spending on job-creating infrastructure projects.
Obama could help his case by explaining how his policies fit into a grand design and excite people about them, rather than repeat that he inherited problems from George W. Bush that he is trying to fix, said Brinkley.
“We had Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal.’ We had Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’ What are we calling what Obama’s doing? There’s no name for it,” Brinkley said, referring to big programs started by earlier presidents.
Encouraged by Democrats who see an opportunity from the current malaise, Obama is moving swiftly to get a debate going on overhauling healthcare, rejecting criticism that he is trying to do too many things at once and should focus exclusively on the economy.
Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, likes Obama’s instincts because “it’s better to strike while the iron is hot and throw this huge agenda at Congress and think you’re going to get some of it.”
Pollster John Zogby said Americans have not lost their innate opposition to heavy-handed government despite the current hard times.
This may be why Obama, at his healthcare summit, cautioned “the liberal bleeding hearts” that their healthcare goal of universal coverage is unlikely because of the costs.
“It’s in our bloodstream,” said Zogby, noting how skepticism for big central government persisted even through the Great Depression of the early 1900s.
“Even in 1933, in Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days and well into his administration, he always talked about balancing the budget, that expanding the role of government was temporary. I think we are still in that mode.”