Fedblog FedblogFedblog
Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Defending Government, Halfheartedly

National Archives

In 1981, President Reagan, fresh from taking the oath of office, stepped to a microphone on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and fleshed out a theme that he had doggedly developed through months of campaigning: " In this present crisis," he intoned, "government is not the solution to our problem."

Lest anyone miss the point, Reagan hammered it home throughout the rest of his address:

It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.

Reagan set a tone that has endured for more than 30 years. In fact, his rallying cry for limited government has become so firmly established -- through both Republican and Democratic presidencies -- that even when a president is making the case for an activist federal establishment (as President Obama did yesterday), he must insist that his proposals actually do not involve an excessive role for government.

So it was that Obama early in his second inaugural address, took pains to declare that while we have learned throughout American history that "a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers," that "a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play," and that "a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune," at the same time "we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone."

That was his address in a nutshell: a defense of the specific actions taken by the federal government to improve the lives of citizens, while at the same time arguing they didn't add up to any more government than was absolutely necessary to get the job done. And, Obama implicitly acknowledged, government wasn't doing that great at its job. "So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government," he pledged.

The president pledged action on a laundry list of causes from climate change to gay rights to limiting gun violence. But by the time Obama reached the end of the speech, it seemed that he had grown weary of the debate over government. Let's just agree to disagree, he said, do what needs doing, and leave the debating to the political scientists and historians:

Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness.  Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. 

That may be President Obama's best hope for a succesful second term. But in the absence of consensus on the proper role for government in achieving the "progress" he desires -- or whether government even has a role -- getting a deeply divided Congress to act will be a big challenge. 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.