MAKING THE CASE FOR GOVERNMENT…. 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.” And Obama wants America to know that government is the “only” institution that’s capable of addressing an economic crisis of this severity.

The president carried this idea forward last night, delivering a national address that was, at its core, a full-throated defense of government intervention. The NYT noted that Obama “proposed a more activist government than any other since Lyndon B. Johnson.”

Alex Massie had a good piece, describing the address, accurately, as an “ambitious, liberal speech.”

It was a speech that would have been too bold for Clinton and too grand for Carter. Obama is the heir to LBJ American liberals have been waiting for. Anyone who feared that the present economic turmoil would be used to justify any manner of government initiatives — in the name of Not Doing Nothing — had those suspicions confirmed last night. The era of Big Government (by American standards) is back.

But it’s back with a poise and a coolness and a demeanour that, allied with the present uncertainty, make it a much more palatable proposition than at any time since the Great Society itself.

E. J. Dionne Jr. was thinking along the same lines.

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.

Tuesday night’s speech was the most comprehensive manifesto he has offered 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.

And that’s ultimately why I liked it so much. The president 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.

I’m 35 and I haven’t seen a president endorse this kind of progressive vision in my lifetime. It is, however, what I’d hoped for when I voted in November.

Update: Rich Lowry, intending this as criticism, noted 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.”


Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.