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November 6, 2008

the core principle of a presidential administration

(On the USAir Shuttle to DC) I think the most important question about presidential candidates is not what kind of people they seem to be or what they promise to do if elected, but rather how they view the relationship between individuals and the government. Their characters are hard to assess from afar and will change in office; their policy proposals will also shift. But poor presidents always have vague, incoherent, or downright bad ideas about how citizens and the government should relate. Great presidents are elected with compelling new visions of this relationship, and they make those visions real.

Ronald Reagan's core idea was that the valuable aspects of life were private and voluntary. The most salient fact about the government was that it compelled people to pay for it. So compulsion was at the heart of the relationship. Soldiers and police officers had moral standing because they put their lives at risk to protect the American private sphere. Their use of force and tax money was therefore legitimate. Otherwise, "government is not the solution to our problem[s]; government is the problem."

Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush on the platform that government should help people who were suffering economically. So helping was central to the relationship. As Clinton said in his 1992 acceptance speech, "We have got to ... give our people the kind of government they deserve, a government that works for them. A President, a president, ought to be a powerful force for progress." Government could best help if it were efficiently and skillfully managed. Clinton was a generally successful manager and employed a lot of smart people to help Americans lead safer and more prosperous private lives. He also created new ways for citizens to engage--through AmeriCorps--but the work volunteers were called to do was almost always "service" in the sense of helping the unfortunate.

For Jimmy Carter, in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, the salient aspect of the relationship between citizens and the government was trust. Trust had been violated; Carter promised to restore it by acting honorably in the White House. "I will never lie to you" was his signature campaign line.

For FDR, I think an essential aspect of the relationship was work. People were literally without work in 1932, and FDR offered to hire many of them. From the WPA and CCC to the US Military in World War II, the New Deal was government-as-employer. Even those Americans who were never paid by the government (the vast majority, of course) were supposed to work on public problems. That was the New Deal ideal.

Barack Obama launched his campaign by addressing citizens' relationship with government and he never stopped talking about it. It even came up in his 30-minute TV ad. I thought this theme was under-reported, even though it is always the most important question about a presidential candidate, and Obama has a distinctive view.

Obama's core idea is that citizens are at the center of politics. Not private individuals, not the government, not politicians, but people working together in public, on public matters. Campaigning in New Hampshire in 2006, he said, "There's a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. ... All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate."

Obama broke away from the helping model that still guided Hilary Clinton and from the privatism that was the main theme of modern conservatism. On the campaign trail, he modeled his new conception in two important ways--by making his campaign maximally participatory (pushing power out to the network) and by lowering the partisan temperature a notch. He is a Democrat and he was willing to debate and compete with Republicans. But he never seemed to relish this difference. The reason is that citizens are both liberal and conservative, and they need to work together to solve any serious problems. Competition is appropriate in a campaign, but campaigning is a role for politicians, and they are not the heart of politics.

There is a good fit between Obama's vision and the New Deal, insofar as Roosevelt supported "public work" (in my friend Harry Boyte's phrase). That is why national and community service programs may play a role in today's financial crisis like the CCC and WPA in the early thirties. Obama talks more about listening and collaborating than Roosevelt did; FDR was a happy warrior on the campaign trail. But the country is different now. The Internet is the guiding metaphor instead of the factory floor. It will be fascinating to see what citizen-centered politics and public work mean in the Internet age.

November 6, 2008 9:28 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


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