Is American view against big government softening?

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.

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.”

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