On May 1, President Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan. In his speech, he defended government against its critics. "What troubles me," the president said, "is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad." Now, hardly anybody in the American political mainstream says this. But to prove the self-evident point that not all government is "inherently bad," Obama went on:
Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad. (Applause.) Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. (Applause.) Government is this extraordinary public university -– a place that’s doing lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small. (Applause.)
Is this really the best he can do? Note that, with the exception of the Interstate Highway System, the (obviously imperfect) mining regulator, and the U.S. Armed Forces, all of the government functions to which Obama refers are state and local responsibilities. Yet the current argument is over the size and scope of the federal government -- whether it ought to create new entitlements even as the current system approaches bankruptcy, whether it ought to bail out auto manufacturers, banks, and insurance companies, whether it ought to assume a greater role over education and the environment and diet and housing -- whether, in short, the Constitution still limits what the federal government can do in any substantive way. And this is a question Obama does not address at all. In fact, he believes it is the wrong question entirely:
The truth is, the debate we’ve had for decades now between more government and less government, it doesn’t really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt. But we’ve also clearly seen the dangers of too little government -– like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy. (Applause.)
So, class of 2010, what we should be asking is not whether we need “big government” or a “small government,” but how we can create a smarter and better government.
Leave aside the fact that "a lack of accountability on Wall Street" was not, as the president implies, the sole cause of the financial crisis. Note, instead, how he simply dodges the question of whether the federal government ought to be big or small. Couldn't you have a "smarter and better government" that is also limited in scope and restricted in power? Obama doesn't seem to think so. But to avoid stating his preference for a large federal government, he shifts his focus to government's intelligence and efficiency. And who is against intelligence and efficiency? No one.
The president does the graduates a disservice when his rhetoric is limited to sketchy platitudes and straw men. He does them a disservice when he fails to engage his opponents directly. Perhaps he does not actually understand what they believe. Conservatives argue that an unlimited government inevitably will turn out to be a dumb and wasteful government. It's not hard to find evidence for this proposition. Open your eyes.
How does Obama propose to have a large and expensive federal government that is also smart and efficient? He leaves that question unanswered. And it is his lack of an answer that is ultimately responsible for his party's coming misfortune.