President Obama is trying to change the political debate in Washington. The standard tension is between big government and small. Obama has spent the past two years urging people to ask not how large their government has grown, but whether it is effective.
“Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that keep you safe,” he told graduating seniors at the University of Michigan in May. “Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them.”
That is a very different view of government from the iconic line popularized by President Reagan in the 1980s: “The 10 most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ”
In contrast to Reagan, Obama has said he is troubled when he hears people say that all of government is inherently bad.
“When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us,” he said in Michigan.
This White House wants people to evaluate government programs on the results they produce. It is a message Obama recently underscored in New Orleans on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“We’re helping state and local leaders to address serious problems that had been neglected for decades,” he said. “Problems that existed before the storm came and that continued after the waters receded, from the levee system to the justice system; from the health care system to the education system.”
Presidential adviser David Axelrod says making this argument now is both difficult and important because Americans are enduring one of the most challenging economic times in history.
“I think there’s a tremendous suspicion of institutions generally -- not just government but obviously other institutions as well,” Axelrod said during a recent interview with NPR. “And so it’s important to disaggregate what government means and focus on the fact that there are some essential functions that we all rely on, we count on, and we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Axelrod argues that sometimes less government is desirable and other times more government regulation could have helped avert problems like the economic collapse.
“I think that it’s important not to be wedded to systems, but to be wedded to outcomes,” he said.
'Can't Run And Hide'
Gov. Jim Douglas (R-VT) used almost the exact words in an interview later the same day. “I think one way we might look at it is to focus on outcomes rather than incomes,” Douglas said.
Douglas, who was chairman of the National Governors Association until early 2010, is very popular among Vermonters, even though the state is heavily Democratic.
He says governors differ from politicians in Washington, because governors cannot escape the obligation to make government effective.
“In a small state like ours, we can’t run and hide,” Douglas says. “This is fair season, so most counties have a fair where I have the opportunity to see literally thousands of my fellow Vermonters, and they expect the opportunity to confront their elected officials and tell us how they feel.”
If the new roof on the community center is leaking, Douglas is likely to hear about it.
It is harder to reach the same level of accountability in large states, let alone in the federal government. Americans can't exactly confront someone at the county fair to ask why billions of taxpayer dollars have gone missing in Iraq, or why the stimulus package known as the Recovery Act didn’t create more jobs.
The Obama administration has tried using technology to improve accountability.
On the Web site Recovery.gov, people can type in a ZIP code and see the exact projects that recovery act money has funded in any neighborhood.
Those who judge government by its size may not like the amount of money being spent on the Recovery Act, but people who evaluate government by its effectiveness see this as a step forward.
“What we really care most about is whether or not government works for us where we live,” says Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. “We don’t really care much about Social Security or health programs per se. We want to get our checks when they’re due, and we want to be healthy.”
Kettl gives the Obama administration “enormous credit for, I think, framing exactly the core of the question. Their struggle is trying to figure out how to put together results that they can demonstrate, that people care about, and that ultimately produce some kind of political effect as well.”
Those who visit Recovery.gov and see projects happening in their area may be happy about it. But such high-tech tools reach only those who reach out for them, and the president's speeches may not be convincing many more. Most Americans are still waiting to see the kind of results that Kettl is talking about before they believe again in the kind of government effectiveness the president is talking about.