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Obama Tries To Put Positive Spin On Government

Obama Government

ERICA WERNER   04/ 9/10 04:52 PM ET   AP

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

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 – 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 shoot it down.

"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," 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 Obama praised emergency workers who'd responded to the floods in the Northeast.

The message: Government's not all bad.

"There is this notion afoot that somehow it's cool to be cynical about government. And then you go into this emergency center and you see these extraordinarily dedicated people," Obama said at one of the events.

"I think it's worth remembering that, when you hear some of the rhetoric out there," he added at the other.

White House officials say the comments aren't a strategic shift so much as a reflection of 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.

"The president sees these things, and feels moved to comment," said senior adviser David Axelrod.

"There are some things for which we rely on government, and when you delegitimate it, it makes it difficult to solve some of the big problems we have," Axelrod said.

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 Obama is presiding over an administration that's 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."

Obama spoke to a need for government to step in and help private citizens in the 2004 Democratic convention speech that propelled him onto the national stage. He made the case in more detail as in a 2005 commencement address at Knox College in Illinois, where the then-senator took aim at President George W. Bush's "Ownership Society" and said that the U.S. owed its wealth and stability to government policies in addition to individual enterprise and free markets.

Obama has discussed the tea party movement by name only once in public so far, in response to a question on NBC's "Today" show. He said that the movement is built around a "core group" of people who question whether he is a U.S. citizen and believe he is a socialist, but added: "I think that there's a broader circle around that core group of people who are legitimately concerned about the deficit, who are legitimately concerned that the federal government may be taking on too much."

Polls suggest such concerns 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 cases 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 fuel 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 Bill 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 Clinton.

For that reason, this latest bout of anti-government angst may not subside until more people have jobs, no matter what Obama says, though his advisers argue that a good economy alone won't do the trick unless Washington also changes its ways as 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 Obama believes government can provide solutions. And he'll probably keep trying to win over a skeptical public to that view.

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Filed by Adam J. Rose  |