Most Americans say they're glad Big Government is back to help through hard times. But they aren't sure they want it to stay.
The Obama administration, trying to reverse the economy's meltdown and prevent it from happening again, is redefining the role of the federal government in the economy — spending trillions of dollars, building new regulatory systems for financial institutions and effectively taking over a major part of the automobile industry.
Although an expansive federal government hasn't had a defender in the White House for nearly a half-century — since Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society program — most Americans in a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll approve of President Obama and the government's latest assertiveness. However, some of the steps he has ordered have made them wary.
By 3-to-1, those surveyed say government's expansion should be cut back when the economic crisis is over.
"They should do whatever is necessary, especially for the automobile business," says Lee Heffner, 78, of Temple, Pa., who was among those polled. For 50 years, he ran the Ford dealership his father founded during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even so, he worries, "it seems we're on the trend of nationalization for a lot of things. Once the government gets into something, it's very seldom they back out of it."
Obama on Tuesday defended his economic proposals and the results they've gotten so far, calling it "a new foundation" for sustainable economic growth through this century. "We have been called to govern in extraordinary times," he said in the speech at Georgetown University, cautioning that 2009 "will continue to be a difficult year."
The White House, experimenting with Washington's role in the economy, is taking unprecedented steps: helping some homeowners who can't handle their mortgage payments, underwriting the warranties for GM and Chrysler cars and organizing a huge public-private rescue plan to buy up banks' most troubled assets. The Treasury Department on Friday pegged the budget deficit for this year at $1.75 trillion, nearly quadruple last year's record shortfall.
The moves have raised questions about how far government should go in directing the market — and whether, in some sectors, it could wind up deciding which businesses survive and which ones fail. An opening sketch this month on NBC's Saturday Night Live showed a faux Obama delivering edicts on the survival of everything from fast-food chains to makers of jeans. ("Levi's, yes," the Obama impersonator deadpanned. "Wrangler, no.")
In previous eras, economic calamities reshaped the government and expanded its reach. A depression in the 1890s helped inspire the federal income tax. The financial panic of 1907 made the case for creating the Federal Reserve. The Great Depression led President Franklin Roosevelt to use the federal government to sponsor job programs and deliver electricity to the impoverished Tennessee Valley.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel thinks the nation is at another turning point.
"Every time in a period of crisis — look at the time of World War II or the Depression, look at the Civil War — people have reinterpreted what the government can and should do. We're in that moment of time now," he tells USA TODAY. "Crises create that."
Exactly what the final outcome will be isn't clear, he says.