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Americans Like Big Government

They just don't really know it yet.

Barack Obama flew to Columbus last week to announce a stimulus-funded rescue of 25 police jobs. During his speech, this most eloquent of presidents fell into a Lyndon Johnson-like sing-song as he detailed all the other pump-priming grants to Ohio from the stimulus package: “$128 million that will put people to work renovating and rebuilding affordable housing. … $935 million to Ohio that will create jobs rebuilding our roads, our bridges and our highways. … $180 million for this state that will go towards expanding mass transit and buying fuel-efficient buses.”

Even if these projects turn out to be the greatest job-creation engine since the construction of the pyramids, Obama and the stimulus package would only receive marginal political credit. Governor Ted Strickland will undoubtedly brag about the new roads and bridges when he runs for reelection next year and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman will bask in the success of the police academy’s Class of ’09. This is not ingratitude, but an illustration of how the political game works. The feds pay the bills (and sometimes take the heat), while state and local officials never miss a ribbon cutting. As a result, big-government liberalism has been in defensive crouch for 40 years as voters ridicule Washington’s competence (“I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help” was a moth-eaten joke by the time Ronald Reagan reached the White House), while simultaneously hailing can-do governors and mayors.

I learned this sad-eyed lesson in the Carter administration more than 30 years ago as I tried to ballyhoo the successes of the largest public-service jobs effort since the Depression, the star-crossed CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program. Under Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall (whom I worked for at the time), the federal government dramatically expanded anti-recession employment programs that peaked with 725,000 public service workers in 1978.

Though CETA was successful on many levels (and I am eager to attend earnest conferences in warm climates to discuss its policy virtues in detail), the scandal-scarred program quickly morphed into a public-relations nightmare. Pressure from public-service unions meant that CETA funds could not replace any existing job (the term for this dastardly act was “substitution”), so the temporary federal workers were sometimes mobilized to perform sketchy tasks. (Embedded in my memory is a county in California using CETA workers to conduct a cat-and-dog census, but a Nexis search has failed to verify this laudable project.)

But one of the main problem with CETA was that it created those 725,000 jobs in the most invisible way possible--through state and local governments and non-profit agencies. Even the best designed of the public-service jobs programs brought little political credit to the Carter administration because the federally funded workers were hidden in senior-citizen centers, county clerks’ offices, and local Red Cross chapters.

Unlike Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA and the rest of the New Deal, CETA left nothing tangible in its wake. There were no inspiring CETA murals in post offices, no CETA-built airports like LaGuardia (which was constructed by the WPA) and certainly no famous CETA dams, though there were a lot of “goddams” about the scandals that dogged the program. I recall some languid discussion of using CETA workers to rebuild the railroad bed between New York and Washington (Amtrak, after all, was federally funded), but such a potentially visible your-tax-dollars-at-work program got lost in the shuffle, presumably because of arcane union objections. Displaying the kind of class solidarity that has been the hallmark of my career, I suggested that CETA might embrace a small national jobs program for a particularly neglected minority group--unemployed writers. But there was to be no updating of the WPA’s state guides in the Carter administration.

After decimating Carter in the 1980 election, Reagan declared in his first inaugural address, “The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. … In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.” Having rich but mythical targets like welfare mothers driving Cadillacs, Reagan did not need to waste ammunition demonizing public-service jobs. But when the Gipper denounced the corrupt incompetence of Big Government, CETA was one of the maligned federal programs that came instantly to mind. There were few mourners when the Republicans ended public-service jobs, but CETA should be remembered as the last old-fashioned, big-ticket liberal spending program (Bill Clinton favored income transfers like the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit) until the ascent of Barack Obama.

Fate and a discredited economy have granted Obama a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform public attitudes about the role and the competence of the federal government. The president’s $787-billion economic ride-to-the-rescue plan was slapped together with understandable haste, so there was an obvious prejudice towards rushing money to projects that state and local governments already had up on the drawing board. That is why it was inevitable that the spending would highlight state and locally run initiatives like police cadets and energy-efficient buses.

But it is also imperative for Obama to put the federal stamp on the bold dreams that undergird his economic vision. Some of the challenge is rhetoric and some of it is program design. The temptation in Washington, and especially Congress, is for the role of the federal government to be limited to writing specifications for grants. But this time around, in the mind of the voters, there has to be a federal stamp on major Obama projects like high-speed rail and efforts to create green jobs.

In his inauguration address, Obama tried to be too cute and too end-to-ideology as he tried to split the difference between liberals and conservatives as he declared, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This is the time for Big Government--a concept that can only shed its toxic implications if Obama proudly embraces its reach. And maybe, if Obama makes a compelling enough case, no one will laugh the next time someone cracks, “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.”

Walter Shapiro was a special assistant to Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall and a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. He has covered the last eight presidential campaigns.

By Walter Shapiro