- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to “make government cool again.” After a year that gave birth to the anti-government “tea party” movement, the president can hardly claim to have succeeded.

Now, Mr. Obama appears to be embracing a humbler goal: making the case that government is necessary.

Mr. Obama has always advocated a role for government in improving people’s lives. But with anti-government sentiment boiling over amid continued high unemployment - and tax-filing day approaching, likely touching off renewed tea party protests - Mr. Obama has been addressing the issue more pointedly. He’s not just speaking in favor of what government can do and offering gentle defenses of government intervention. He’s also taking direct note of the rhetoric on the other side, calling it out and trying to discredit it.

“You’re hearing a lot of talk these days about government, and government is terrible, and bureaucrats, and they’re taking over and all this stuff. Look, I don’t want government any more than is necessary,” Mr. Obama told voters at a town hall in North Carolina last week.

He noted there’s a limit to what private companies can do - and it doesn’t include building roads or paying for public defense.

“That’s where government comes in,” he said.

It was the same story at two Democratic National Committee fundraisers in Boston, where Mr. Obama praised emergency workers who had responded to the floods in the Northeast.

The message: Government is not all bad.

White House officials say the comments aren’t a strategic shift so much as a reflection of Mr. Obama’s concern about the anti-government sentiment in circulation, embodied most visibly by the tea party movement but also expressed by Republican politicians, conservative talk-show hosts and some regular voters.

Analysts say it’s probably smart politics. Ignoring the anti-government rhetoric that’s become a major strain in the public discourse won’t make it go away. And Mr. Obama is presiding over an administration that has inserted itself in extraordinary ways into the lives of everyday Americans, whether the president likes it, as with the new health care legislation, or not, as with the auto bailout. If he can’t try to soothe voters’ concerns about the government’s reach and role, who will?

“One would almost say that he has a constitutional obligation to do that. He stands for Article 2 of the Constitution,” the one describing the executive branch, said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. “He’s responding to something that he thinks is troubling, either troubling to society or troubling to the culture or troubling politically, and I think he has reason to think that.”

Polls suggest concerns over the scope of government are widespread. In a New York Times/CBS poll in February, 56 percent of people said they would prefer a smaller government providing fewer services, while 34 percent favored a bigger government providing more services. Fifty-nine percent of people said the government was doing too much, compared with 35 percent who said it should do more. In both instances, the number of people favoring a smaller, less-involved government was on the rise.

Many analysts note that anti-government sentiment comes in cycles, generally when economic times are bad, although in prior decades the Internet wasn’t around to fan the flames.

In 1992, economic unease boosted billionaire Ross Perot’s presidential bid, which he focused on balanced budgets. He didn’t win but attracted significant support. By 1996, President Clinton - who had run as a different kind of Democrat in 1992 and later declared that “the era of big government is over” - was winning back Perot voters largely on the strength of a recovering economy, not any rhetoric.

“We had a surging economy by the end of the decade, with surpluses, and that goes a long way to defusing that kind of anger,” said Douglas Sosnik, a former senior adviser to Mr. Clinton.

For that reason, this latest bout of anti-government angst may not subside until more people have jobs, no matter what Mr. Obama says, though his advisers argue that a good economy alone won’t do the trick unless Washington also changes its ways, as Mr. Obama has said he wants to force it to.

Ronald Reagan declared that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” But Mr. Obama thinks government can provide solutions. And he’ll probably keep trying to win over a skeptical public to that view.

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