WASHINGTON — The economy needs to be fixed. On this, Democrats and Republicans agree. They part ways over how to do it and, specifically, what role the federal government should play.
"Ultimately," President Barack Obama tells Congress, "our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help."
His argument that government has a responsibility to do so probably doesn't sit well with an America that's down on Washington.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other Republicans competing for his job take a different tack as they court a tea party-infused GOP electorate: The economy will thrive, they say, if Washington simply gets out of the way. As Perry puts it: "Smaller government, less spending, fewer regulations."
At the heart of the 2012 presidential race is an issue as old as the country itself. Is it the federal government's responsibility to address what ails the nation, in this case the economy? And if so, to what degree? What is the right balance?
History tells us that, try as we might, we may never answer those questions; we've been debating them ever since the Jeffersonians and the Federalists squabbled over states' rights vs. a strong central government. In the end, the Constitution assigned certain powers to the federal government while reserving others to states.
But the tension in America between the purely local and a far-off central government has never gone away. Nor, perhaps, should it in an ever-evolving democracy.
These days, Republicans argue for a limited government, claiming that lower taxes and less regulation will encourage job creation. Democrats advocate a more robust government, one that provides more services, pours more money into the economy and, in Obama's case, raises taxes on the nation's highest earners.
"We've been in this pattern for decades. These are the terms of our politics probably for the next generation, too," said Charles Kesler, who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College and edited "Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding."
Given the scripts, the question that ultimately determines who wins the presidency might be this: What do Americans want from their government?
For many, the answer is difficult to articulate.
Larry Parkin, a conservative who hosts a discussion group on the Federalist Papers with the South Pinellas 9.12 Patriots in St. Petersburg, Fla., just started collecting Social Security, which he calls a contract with the government. The 65-year-old Coast Guard retiree expects the country to secure the borders and protect the nation. Beyond that, he says: "I expect them to be less intrusive than they are. I expect them to have a limited role."
But he struggles to identify exactly where the line between too much and too little government lies.
Ask Ashley Stilos, a liberal in Fayettville, Ark., the same question and she says one of the government's roles is to take care of its people, adding: "Every individual should have the right to pursue happiness from an equal fighting ground, and that's not the way it is in society."
Is it the government's job to make that playing field level? The 27-year-old university loan specialist says: "They have the power to make it more equal, and it's their responsibility to do that."
Americans' views of government have shifted in recent years, according to an analysis of Associated Press exit polls.
In 1992, more than half of voters thought government was doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. But by 2008, a majority, for the first time, wanted government to do more to solve the nation's problems.
That didn't last long after Obama took office. In quick fashion, he signed into law an economic stimulus plan and a health care system overhaul while presiding over the second installment of Wall Street bailout money.
By 2010, 56 percent of voters were back to saying that government was overreaching, while just 38 percent said government should be more active. It was the most government wary view among independents that the exit poll has recorded, with 65 percent saying government should do less, while 28 percent said it should do more.
Nowadays, people across the political spectrum seem to want very little from Washington.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in June found that 63 percent of people think the government is doing too much, while 33 percent want it to do more. And the sentiments of independents, who typically decide close elections, generally mirrored Americans at large.
But all that could change quickly, especially if these tough times persist, with 9.1 percent unemployment, rampant foreclosures and fear of back-to-back recessions.
Against this backdrop, Obama is seeking re-election. And a 24-hour span last week showed the vastly different type of leader — and view of government — the nation will get if they choose a Republican over him.
No sooner did eight Republicans take the debate stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., than did they rail against the federal government requiring states to act a certain way, lambast Washington overreach, and argue that fewer regulations and lower taxes would compel businesses to hire again.
"They're looking for a president that will say we're going to lower the tax burden on you and we're going to lower the regulation impact on you, and free them to do what they do best: create jobs," said Perry, who has staked his candidacy on a promise to make the federal government as inconsequential as possible to people's lives.
He and the others were posturing before a GOP electorate shaped by the tea party, whose existence can be attributed in part to a disgust by citizens over the growth of government — and federal spending — under George W. Bush, a Republican, and Obama, a Democrat.
"I believe in a lot of what the tea party believes in," Romney said. "The tea party believes that government's too big, taxing too much, and that we ought to get to the work of getting Americans to work."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said Washington needs to stay out of education and health issues, claiming: "We have the best results when we have the private sector and when we have the family involved. We have the worst results when the federal government gets involved." And Texas Rep. Ron Paul opposes the federal government from having any role that isn't explicitly laid out in the Constitution.
One night later, Obama pressed Congress to immediately pass a $450 billion plan to create jobs and jolt the economy, arguing that government was at least partly responsible for fixing it, helping Americans who are hurting and upgrading the nation's crumbling roads, bridges and schools.
"This task of making America more competitive for the long haul, that's a job for all of us," he said, adding: "For government and for private companies. For states and for local communities — and for every American citizen."
He countered the pitch from conservatives and the tea party that heavily cutting government spending and eliminating a chunk of government regulations is the best solution to the economic woes, saying: "This larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own — that's not who we are. That's not the story of America."
And he reached back to history to try to prove his point.
Obama argued that its workers and entrepreneurs made America's economy great, the envy of the world. But he also noted that government was responsible for the Transcontinental Railroad, the National Academy of Sciences, the first land grant colleges, the G.I. Bill, the nation's highway and air systems, the public school system, research that led to the Internet and the computer chip.
Americans will hear these competing visions of government for the next 14 months before casting a vote that will offer a glimpse into Americans views of the scope of government — a temporary clarity at best as the debate as old as our founding rages on.
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