President Obama’s recent commencement speech at the University of Michigan is worth reading in its entirety, about his reflections on government, politics, civility, participation, and citizenship. His philosophy of government is instructive for those of us who were deeply involved in the debate on health reform (the emphases are mine):
First of all, American democracy has thrived because we have recognized the need for a government that, while limited, can still help us adapt to a changing world. On the fourth panel of the Jefferson Memorial is a quote I remember reading to my daughters during our first visit there. It says, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but…with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
The democracy designed by Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire, the first Americans were understandably skeptical of government. And ever since we’ve held fast to the belief that government doesn’t have all the answers, and we have cherished and fiercely defended our individual freedom. That’s a strand of our nation’s DNA.
But the other strand is the belief that there are some things we can only do together, as one nation -– and that our government must keep pace with the times. When America expanded from a few colonies to an entire continent, and we needed a way to reach the Pacific, our government helped build the railroads. When we transitioned from an economy based on farms to one based on factories, and workers needed new skills and training, our nation set up a system of public high schools. When the markets crashed during the Depression and people lost their life savings, our government put in place a set of rules and safeguards to make sure that such a crisis never happened again, and then put a safety net in place to make sure that our elders would never be impoverished the way they had been. And because our markets and financial systems have evolved since then, we’re now putting in place new rules and safeguards to protect the American people.
Now, this notion — this notion, class, hasn’t always been partisan. It was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who said the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves. And he’d go on to begin that first intercontinental railroad and set up the first land-grant colleges. It was another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “the object of government is the welfare of the people.” And he’s remembered for using the power of government to break up monopolies, and establish our National Park system. (Applause.) Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced the Great Society during a commencement here at Michigan, but it was the Republican President before him, Dwight Eisenhower, who launched the massive government undertaking known as the Interstate Highway System.
Of course, there have always been those who’ve opposed such efforts. They argue government intervention is usually inefficient; that it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual initiative. And in certain instances, that’s been true. For many years, we had a welfare system that too often discouraged people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. At times, we’ve neglected the role of parents, rather than government, in cultivating a child’s education. And sometimes regulation fails, and sometimes their benefits don’t justify their costs.
But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs during the health care debate was somebody who said, “Keep Your Government Hands Out Of My Medicare” — which is essentially saying “Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run Health Care Plan.”
When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us. We, the people — (applause.) We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.
Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad. Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. Government is this extraordinary public university -– a place that’s doing lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.
The truth is, the debate we’ve had for decades now between more government and less government, it doesn’t really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government can stifle competition and deprive us of choice and burden us with debt. But we’ve also clearly seen the dangers of too little government -– like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly leads to the collapse of our entire economy.
So, class of 2010, what we should be asking is not whether we need “big government” or a “small government,” but how we can create a smarter and better government. (Applause.)
Because in an era of iPods and Tivo, where we have more choices than ever before — even though I can’t really work a lot of these things — but I have 23-year-olds who do it for me — — government shouldn’t try to dictate your lives. But it should give you the tools you need to succeed. Government shouldn’t try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who’s willing to work hard.
So, yes, we can and should debate the role of government in our lives. But remember, as you are asked to meet the challenges of our time, remember that the ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.