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The Era of Bashing Big Government Is Over

Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive--but he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation.

 "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," Obama declared, echoing generations of American progressives before him. "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.

Perhaps paradoxically, Obama was trying to restore faith in the private economy by bolstering confidence in government's capacity to act rationally, creatively and efficiently. Yet he insisted that he was not seeking government  action for the sake of expanding the public sector itself.

He called for a massive stimulus plan, "not because I believe in bigger government, I don't," but because failing to do so would have "cost more jobs and caused more hardships." But he also promised that his energetic approach to government would continue. In particular, he argued that health care reform was an economic and fiscal necessity, not simply a moral imperative on behalf of the uninsured. Presidential aides said that the new math of health care creates new possibilities, rooted in a new consensus for reform across ideological lines.    

"We want to get health care done this year," Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in an interview. "Not only because that's a key fiscal objective, but also because a lot of forces are coming together to get it done."

Obama also endorsed school reform, urging citizens to get at least a year of post-high-school education to prepare them for the rigors of a tougher, more competitive labor market. He pressed his arguments that future prosperity depends on a greener, more energy-efficient economy. Here again he was invoking the American progressive promise that government action could ignite the dynamism of an enterprise and initiative.    

Obama's lieutenants said that even as he made the case for public action, the president was mindful of the skepticism about government's capacity and its anger over the use of taxpayer money to bail out the very financial institutions that helped trigger the downturn.

That is why the president touted the spending cuts in his new budget. It is also why he felt obligated to defend, again, his $787 billion stimulus plan. "I know there are some in this chamber and watching at home who are skeptical of whether this plan will work," he said. "And I understand that skepticism. Here in Washington, we've all seen how quickly good intentions can turn into broken promises and wasteful spending. And with a plan of this scale comes enormous responsibility to get it right."

Aware that it is battling anti-government assumptions that are deeply rooted after a long conservative era, the administration will campaign to demonstrate that the stimulus money is being spent wisely and on programs the public sees as worthy. "We have to win this fight on the stimulus package," said one official, noting that getting the legislation passed was only the first battle. Ultimately, he said, a public reeling under rising unemployment rates will need to be convinced that government is actually improving its lot.

In just over a month in office, the president has pursued two goals that, conventionally speaking, seem at odds. Again and again, he has reached out to Republicans with White House invitations and promises to incorporate their best ideas in his own plans. Yet at the same time, he has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation.

Tuesday night he offered the most comprehensive manifesto yet for his new rendezvous with America's progressive tradition. "We will rebuild," he declared, "we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." If he is right, he will also have rebuilt American liberalism.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.