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The era of big government is undead

January 21, 2013, at 11:15 PM
"Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government. But it does require us to act," President Obama said in his second inaugural speech.

"Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government. But it does require us to act," President Obama said in his second inaugural speech. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"A sharp call to action." (Christian Science Monitor)

"Unapologetic." (Huffington Post)

"Obama offers liberal vision for second term." (The New York Times)

A full-throated defense of the social safety net, an aggressive call for action on climate change, the first call for gay rights in an inaugural address ever, a slap at the political tendentiousness of House Republicans, a promise to uphold progressive values.

And yet: Will Obama be able to do more? Assuming Republicans don't immediately cave on deficit reduction, Obama's next big speech, to be delivered in February during the State of the Union, will by necessity be more practical. What type of spending cuts will Obama agree to? How will he adjust Medicare to keep it solvent? Will he endorse some type of means-testing? How will he solve the problem of persistent unemployment among young people? Will he be able to facilitate any legislation on climate change while Republicans control the House of Representatives? 

Keep in mind, too: The number of people needing the safety net Obama touted is slowly declining. The number of Americans on food stamps is trending downward. The deficit as a percentage of the GDP is on track to even out. The Defense Department will almost certainly shrink, perhaps by as much as 5 to 10 percent. Gay rights are spreading faster than the executive branch expected and it's Obama who is playing catch up, to some degree.

Four years hence, the government is almost certainly not going to be appreciably larger. With the exception of his health care reform, an entitlement that will benefit the insurance industry and force the government to make harder choices about how to spend money, all of the Big Things that Americans rely on will remain pretty much unchanged. The government will have grown much more (percentage-wise) during the Bush administration than it did during the Obama administration.

Where Obama's liberal vision will come to fruition is in the decrees of the administrative state. The bureaucracy will impose, through taxes and mandates, a cap on emissions. Regulators will come to the aid of students with outstanding loans. (Obama's expansion of those grants is a relatively minor, albeit direct, government intervention). Pay equity for women; tax benefits for gay couples; the implementation of immigration reform; the U.S. Department of Agriculture will probably acquire new powers to regulate food and school lunches; independent agencies like the F.D.A. will see their power to protect the weak from untrammeled capitalism increase.

The accretion of power is not binary. It does not divide along the liberal/conservative axis of the cable news world. The size of the surveillance state will increase, too: Obama has taken the Bush-second-term national security consensus and turned it into the mainstream position of the Democratic Party. Libertarians feel homeless.

Obama's biggest stamp on government is his reorientation of the administrative state away from the conservative requirements of the Bush administration and the centrism of "New Democrats" in the era of Bill Clinton and the Gingrich House of Representatives. He will move it towards his own unique brand of liberalism, a liberalism of the details, a liberalism that befits the constituent parts of the majority he has built.  

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