WASHINGTON — A big brother you can trust to keep you safe, give you a hand and do right by you? Or a big brother who snoops, lies and bullies you in all corners of your life?
There’s a common thread running through a series of controversies dogging President Barack Obama: the federal government, and conflicting interpretations of what it is. The debate often is boiled down to this: Obama’s notion of an activist, capable government that helps people vs. Republicans’ impression of an intrusive, incompetent central body that hurts people.
Their views are far more nuanced than much of the rhetoric, of course. Not everyone paints it with such a broad brush. But the subtleties are lost in debates over allegations of a political conspiracy in the Benghazi terrorist attack, the improper IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s secret seizure of journalists’ phone records.
Collectively, the issues cast a black cloud on the institution of government, which people generally don’t think very highly of these days anyway. And the latest dustups could overflow into other debates, ones that have the same good-vs.-bad-government battle lines and that hit home personally for many Americans: the use of unmanned drones, sweeping immigration reform plans and fiscal policy.
None of this bodes well for the Obama administration as the tea party looks to use the moment to inject the GOP with fresh energy and the president tries to maintain his credibility with a public innately skeptical of government.
From the days of the heavy British hand of King George III and before, Americans have been suspicious of distant powerful interests guiding their fates. Government’s scope and role has been debated fiercely and continuously since the country’s birth, with the Founding Fathers struggling to balance a need for collective order with a deep hunger for individual rights.
In this era of divided power in Congress, debate over the government’s responsibility has been acute. The gulf between Republicans and Democrats views on it has gummed up the machinery and hindered progress on big-ticket issues like gun control and tax reform. And it is a key topic in Washington and in the states now that the Obama administration is in the thick of implementing the new health care law, a process Republicans and Democrats alike anticipate will be troubled at times.
Given the sheer size and complexity of government, is it too much for Americans to ask that it operate efficiently? Are Americans — and politicians who represent them — unrealistic to expect that sweeping changes to government will be free of bureaucracy when the system is mired in it? Are problems simply inevitable?
Since Obama took office, he has argued that a vigorous government can be a force for good and can carry out complex new policies aimed at finding solutions to the nation’s most serious problems and helping people who need it. He has long pointed to Social Security and Medicare as examples.
“Our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little,” Obama said in 2009. He was speaking to a joint session of Congress as he pushed for lawmakers to overcome their anger over his economic stimulus plan and approve his health care overhaul.
Republicans have countered that government is not the answer to fixing what ails a changing nation. They say it too often inappropriately applies a one-size-fits-all ethos to a diverse country and impedes personal freedom and economic vitality. Sometimes, they say, big government is outright dangerous.
“The role of government is to promote and protect the principles” of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Republican Mitt Romney said in a presidential debate last fall. He put protecting life and liberty as the top priority, adding: “We also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.”
Such comments belie underlying complexities.
The president and fellow Democrats aren’t saying that government is the be-all end-all. They are mindful of this country’s long history of rejecting a central government controlling everything, a mentality rooted in America’s break from England and the decision to concentrate a chunk of power in the states. And they don’t dismiss individual initiative.
But, led by Obama, they usually do argue that an involved government has a responsibility to — and can — help people, particularly the disenfranchised.
For their part, most Republicans don’t advocate no government at all. Rather, they push for a limited role, keenly aware that the lack of a power center providing some common framework for the states would lead to anarchy. So they generally press for a smaller government that collects fewer taxes, limits spending and is minimally involved.
They favor a system that gives people more responsibility over individual choices and grants the economy room to rise and fall without a raft of regulations and requirements.
Over the past week, the series of political controversies have put on the line Obama’s vision of a big government that can make life better. They have also emboldened Republicans by giving fodder to their argument that government gets in the way and doesn’t work.
The Benghazi controversy has focused on what the White House knew and told the public about the terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost in Libya.
Republicans argue the government was playing campaign politics by being less than candid about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy that left four Americans dead. Obama and Democrats deny a cover-up, much less a politically motivated one.
That was a harder case to make when it came to the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service was giving heightened scrutiny to tea party and conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status in the midst of the 2012 elections. Republicans and Democrats alike expressed outrage, as did Obama. That didn’t stop the GOP from seizing on the turmoil to argue it was proof of a politics-driven administration run amok.
Then it came out that Obama’s Justice Department secretly seized phone records of Associated Press journalists. Obama and his administration said national security was at stake. But both Democrats and Republicans called it government overreach, and tea party, civil liberties and press freedom groups cast it as about constitutional infringement.
As if that wasn’t enough for Obama, mounting allegations of sexual assaults in the military — which, as commander-in-chief, he leads — fed into the GOP’s argument of government incompetence.
Taken together, how can these series of matters do anything but further sully an already bleak reputation of government? Isn’t it probable that any president, regardless of political affiliation, would be blamed simply because he’s overseeing a vast, unwieldy, complex government? And will there ever be resolution to this enduring debate over how much government is too much?
Not a chance. Yet how citizens feel about what government means in America — whether this big brother is protector and friend or malignant tormentor — is certain to shape this country’s thinking on much of what takes place in the public arena. Not to mention Obama’s legacy for years to come.
Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press.