In his speech last night at the Time Warner Cable Arena, Bill Clinton summed up the message from the GOP convention last week like this. “In Tampa, we heard a lot of talk about how the president and the Democrats don’t believe in free enterprise and individual initiative,” he said, “how we want everyone to be dependent on the government, how bad we are for the economy.”
Then Clinton, like so many of the Democrats who took to the podium before him this week in Charlotte, extolled the virtues of an active and robust role for government.
“We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think ‘we’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’”
Elizabeth Warren, the consumer advocate and Massachusetts Senate candidate, preceded him on the podium Tuesday and made an even more overt pitch for an active federal government. “I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class; that allowed millions of children to rise from poverty and establish secure lives. An America that created Social Security and Medicare so that seniors could live with dignity; an America in which each generation built something solid so that the next generation could build something better.”
Most Americans would agree with the spirit of President Clinton’s “we are in this together” philosophy. They help their neighbors. They volunteer at their churches and schools. They want to see a society where everyone gets an equal opportunity to succeed.
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No one needs to convince Americans of the benefits of government programs like Medicare or Social Security. They want government to fund schools, build roads and protect our food and water.
But, for the last few years, the politicians in Washington haven’t given voters much of a reason to believe in them. Partisan gridlock has paralyzed Washington and has helped to drive Congress’ approval ratings down into the single digits.
More important, President Obama campaigned as the man who was finally going to break this deadlock. He was the president who was going to transcend party and pettiness. He was going drive the dysfunction out of Washington.
Yet, four years later, the dysfunction is as bad as it has ever been.
If Obama couldn’t deliver his promise to change Washington, it is tough to convince voters that re-electing him will ensure that he can now make Washington work for them.
The challenge for Obama isn’t convincing Americans that government is important. It is convincing them that government is competent.