The ‘government-is-bad paradigm’ lingers

THE ‘GOVERNMENT-IS-BAD PARADIGM’ LINGERS…. Following up on an earlier item, the new CBS News poll on health care reform not only shows widespread confusion about the nature of the debate, but also growing fears about the kind of services the government can provide.

Specifically, asked whether the government or private insurers would do a better job providing medical coverage, only 36% sided with the government — down 14 points since June. What’s more, 47% believe government is better at keeping costs down — down 12 points since June.

Those familiar with the policy details know how wrong this is, but those familiar with our usually-ridiculous public discourse shouldn’t be surprised. It’s what’s led Medicare recipients to argue they don’t want government involved in their coverage. The two groups of Americans best served by the status quo are seniors (in a Canadian-style, socialized system) and veterans (in a British-style, government-run system), but Americans have been led to believe the private insurance companies — the industry that screw over Americans every day — are the best bet.

Greg Sargent added an important point.

Paul Krugman argued recently that Obama hadn’t effectively used the bully pulpit to slay “government-is-bad fundamentalism.” This is only one poll, but it’s fair to ask whether these numbers bear that out.

Obama’s poll slide has prompted some to ask whether his presidency might fall short of the transformative moment many expected. I think it’s too early to reach a conclusion on this. If Obama pulls out a health care victory, everything will shift again.

But for a time it seemed like shattering the government-is-bad paradigm was distinctly within Obama’s reach. General confidence in the government’s ability to secure the public’s well being seems like pretty good number to keep an eye on when gaming out the potential for transformation of this moment, and of this presidency.

When many conservatives who oppose health care reform argue that this fight is about more than just the uninsured and consumer protections, this is often what they’re referring to. The right doesn’t want health care to be a public service, and they’re panicky about government intervention in the marketplace — even a broken, dysfunctional marketplace that literally puts Americans’ lives in jeopardy — precisely because it’s government intervention in the marketplace.

It looked, for a while, like the president intended to shift public attitudes on this. In early January, when then-President Elect Obama delivered a speech to unveil his stimulus plan, he offered a rather explicit defense of government: “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy….”

It was the first hint of a fundamental shift. Reagan told us that government “is the problem.” Clinton told us the “era of big government is over.” Obama hoped (and still hopes) to show that in many instances, with the kind of crises we’re facing, government is the “only” institution that can do what needs to be done.

This continued in February, during his first address to Congress. E. J. Dionne Jr. noted at the time, “President Obama’s message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over…. [Obama] 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.”

There was a lot to like. The president, still riding high with a mandate and a huge approval rating, wasn’t apologetic about his use of government, it was just a matter of fact. These are times that demand an ambitious federal response and Obama is going to deliver one. We tried pretending that the government is a tool to be mistrusted and used sparingly, and now we’re going to try something different.

Rich Lowry argued in February that Obama is “trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation.”

That was intended as criticism, but it was a reasonable observation. Given the circumstances, government activism is simple pragmatism.

But the shift that seemed inevitable earlier this year is struggling badly in the face of conservative apoplexy. The more the “government-is-bad paradigm” lingers, the harder it will be do much of anything of value.