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Robert L. Borosage Headshot

Progressive Government: The New Center

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The man can give a speech. Confident, relaxed, bold, serious, President Obama made his case to the American people with boffo reviews from all who saw it no matter what their party allegiance.

And his case was a clear and bold statement of the need for progressive government as the vital instrument to move us out of this crisis and into the future. The recovery plan to put people back to work. Banking reform and "new rules of the road" to get banks working once more. The mortgage initiative to help homeowners stay in their homes.

But more, the need for sustained public investment and leadership to move us into the future with new energy, reform of our broken health care system, and provision of a world class education from birth to a career for every child.

He vowed, sensibly, to bring the deficit down - once recovery begins - to half of its current levels by the end of his term. A return to growth will do most of that. And every other choice was a progressive one: savings from Cold War weapons and no bid military contracts, from billions provided insurance companies to compete with Medicare, from agribusiness (and unspecified education programs that don't work). And then progressive taxes - reversing the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000, ending tax breaks for companies taking jobs abroad (and unmentioned in the speech, sustaining the estate tax and raising the capital gains tax). He also called for moving on cap and trade on carbon emissions - and his budget will project revenue from this effort, so he won't just let companies pocket the proceeds.

The signature riff, to my mind, was his evocation of US history as proof that progressive and active government is American as apple pie:

I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.

For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril, and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again.

Providing the Republican contrast, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindel argued simply that government can't work. Don't do investment, do tax cuts. Republicans are for universal health care, good education and new energy -- they just don't think government should do much to get there.

"It comes down," as Jindel said, "to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government." Republicans scorn common purpose and the need for government to set rules for markets. That may be a hard sell in an economic collapse triggered by speculative excesses of a deregulated financial system.

The president has huge challenges ahead. He'll have to come back for a bigger stimulus. He'll eventually have to take over the zombie banks and reorganize them. Fixing health care and energy will be truly heavy lifting. Empowering workers and other vital structural reforms have to be fought out.

But the president demonstrated clearly once more that he is a leader who can educate and inspire Americans. And he uses that mastery to make the case for a progressive and active government investing in our future. No longer will the president scorn the government that he leads.