This massive hurricane is apparently turning into a boon for Barack Obama on a number of fronts. One, it's allowed him to be seen all over television taking charge and acting presidential, and has even allowed him to brandish bipartisan credentials through the curiously intense bromance that he has developed this week with our own New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (a Romney supporter who, somewhat mysteriously, has gone out of his way to praise the president this week).In other words, the hurricane and its aftermath (millions, a week later, are still out of power) crystallized the long, tortuous election of 2012: do you want a government that is there to defend and aid its citizens, or do you want to shrink it to the point of being able to "drown it in a bathtub" and ensure that the people (in this situation, anyway) drown along with it?
On a deeper level, though, the hurricane has seemingly made a powerful argument on Obama's behalf about the role of government in general. The media is casting this as a stark and simple dichotomy. Romney, the rhetoric goes, is on record as having favored cuts to disaster relief agencies like FEMA ("We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," he said in a primary debate last year), while his running mate, Paul Ryan, has been even more hostile to FEMA ("When disaster-relief decisions are not made judiciously, limited resources are diverted away from communities that are truly in need," he said just last March).
Obama, meanwhile, has reportedly embraced FEMA in the past, and is certainly doing so now, with his comments this past week seeming to argue in favor even of an increase in FEMA spending, noting the frequency of "these kinds of storms."
The only problem with this new line of rhetoric is that it isn't really true. The almost certain reality is that we'll end up with a big (and perhaps even a rapidly-expanding) government no matter who gets elected. People seem to forget that this time four years ago, George W. Bush was winding down one of the most activist, expensive, intrusive presidencies in history, an eight-year period that saw a massive expansion in the size of the federal government. Almost exactly four years ago, this is what the conservative Washington Times wrote about the outgoing president:The false narrative that this election represents some philosophical culmination of 30 years of Reaganism v. 40 years of the New Deal is absurd. Reagan, Bush I and Bush II all grew the size of government dramatically. Ironically, the only time government actually shrank in terms of deficit, debt and employment was under Bill Clinton.
George W. Bush rode into Washington almost eight years ago astride the horse of smaller government. He will leave it this winter having overseen the biggest federal budget expansion since Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven decades ago.Bush, it is true, consistently expanded the size of the federal bureaucracies almost across the board during his eight years in office, greatly increasing the size of government just in terms of sheer numbers and volume of spending, but that wasn't all he did.
People forget that he also took a major qualitative step forward in expanding the role of government, when in 2008 his Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, teamed up with then-Fed official and Paulson's future counterpart in the Obama administration, Tim Geithner, to design a series of financial bailouts and state-aided mergers. The bailout program that began under Bush cost trillions of dollars and left the state hopelessly and irrevocably involved in the insurance, banking and auto industries, among other things.
But the angry meme continues, with Tea Partiers and other ideologues (who busily cash their social security checks and drive on public roads) berating "big government" at every turn. Taibbi nails the hypocrisy (and veiled racism, already mentioned here) of it all.
The evolution of this whole antigovernment movement has been fascinating to watch. People who grew up in public schools, run straight to the embassy the instant they get a runny nose overseas, stuff burgers down their throats without worrying about E. Coli and sleep happily in planes they know have been inspected by the FAA (I regularly risked my life in Aeroflot liners for a decade and know the difference), can with straight faces make the argument that having to pay any taxes at all is tyranny. It's almost as if people feel the need to announce that they don't need any help with anything, ever – not even keeping bridges safe or drinking water clean.Sad, but true.
It's this weird national paranoia about being seen as needy, or labeled a parasite who needs government aid, that leads to lunacies like the idea that having a strong disaster-relief agency qualifies as a "big government" concept, when in fact it's just sensible. If everyone could just admit that government is a fact of life, we could probably do a much better job of fixing it and managing its costs. Instead, we have to play this silly game where millions of us pretend we're above it all, that we don't walk on regularly-cleaned streets or fly in protected skies. It shouldn't take a once-in-a-generation hurricane for Americans to admit they need the government occasionally, but that's apparently where we are.