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The New Era of Big Government

Voters would like it to end. Now.

12:00 AM, Oct 8, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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In his State of the Union address a little over 13 years ago, Bill Clinton proclaimed "the era of big government" was over. After a year of butting heads with the new Republican majority in Congress, President Clinton signaled a willingness to change course and acknowledge the message voters sent in the 1994 mid-term elections: time to trim the sails of Washington's ambitions.

Yet when Barack Obama addressed his first joint session of Congress earlier this year, many believed big government was back. Economic turmoil, coupled with the new power trifecta in Washington--Democratic control of the House, Senate and presidency for the first time since 1993--breathed new life into Leviathan's lungs. The lack of aggressive remedies in Washington, the new president complained, became an "excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy." And during the Bush years, he asserted, "regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit."

Democrats' resurgence coupled with economic distress meant nothing was safe from Washington's reach. Banks, energy companies, health care, the automobile industry and even CEO pay to name a few, would now come under the control of White House czars and activist lawmakers in Congress. "Move fast," Democratic operatives warned. A good crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

It took about two years for the curtain to fall on Bill Clinton's era of big government. Barack Obama's may have ended sooner. A growing body of evidence supports this contention.

Voter cynicism about the consequences of Washington on steroids is one example. A new survey by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, widely reported by the media last week, underscores this point. When asked "who" was helped most by recent government economic policies, a majority said "large banks" (62 percent) and "Wall Street investment companies" (54 percent). Only 10 percent responded "my family/myself."

Some say these data suggest the government should do even more. "Politically," The New York Times wrote, "the poll does a nice job of capturing one of the central challenges for the White House and Democrats in Congress. Voters do not think elected officials have done enough to mitigate the damage from the recession."

This assessment misses the point. It's not that they haven't done enough. They've done too much--or at least the wrong things. Independent voters, who supported Obama in 2008, are the best indicators here. The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey regularly asks a similar question: "Should the government do more/Does it do too much?" In February 2009, independents answered, "do more" by a slim 46 percent to 44 percent margin. By September 2009, those desiring "more government" had slipped to a 21-point deficit (35 percent to 56 percent).

Beliefs about regulation of business and industry are also moving in an unexpected direction. Given the financial meltdown and charges that regulators were asleep at the switch, you might expect voters to support more rather than less government intervention. Surprisingly, American attitudes, especially among swing voters, have shifted towards less intervention. Last September, for example, on the eve of the economic collapse, 38 percent of independents responded there was too much regulation of business and industry. One year later, those numbers have risen to 50 percent.

Growing doubts about Washington's ability to solve the nation's health care problems are another indication. Several polls released in the last week, including those by Fox News and Rasmussen, indicate support for the government's capacity to address this critical issue has reached a new low. Americans don't deny the problem, just Washington's ability to fix it.

The prospects of bigger government are stirring other worries. Rasmussen, for example, also reported last week that for the first time in two years, voters now place concerns about "government ethics and corruption" slightly ahead of the economy. As Washington tries to expand its role, Americans' suspicions about wrongdoing by public officials goes up as well.

Taken together these indicators suggest deep and growing unease with the size, scope and direction of government in Washington--especially among swing voters. Obama's saturation media coverage, reminding people he and the Democrats in Congress are in charge and unchecked is part of the reason. Deeply divisive and highly partisan congressional leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi are another.

Change in Washington may require an intervening election next November. Yet many Americans already are calling for the end of big government . . . again.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.