Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Change We Can Believe In?

My daughter, who's in high school and will be old enough to vote in less than a year, came home yesterday and said, "We had to watch that inaguration stuff in all my classes! It was so boring!!"

Her momma replied something like, "You should be interested in government, because you're almost an adult and you'll get to vote soon."

"But Mom, it just doesn't matter, no matter who gets elected!"

Although I have admiration for the "Obama Youth" who energetically supported his campaign, as a firm believer that "small government is good government," I can certainly appreciate my daughter's sentiments. And I can understand why so many of my fellow citizens are apathetic and cynical about government.

The size and scope of government grew exponentially during the 8 George W. Bush years. And I'm not seeing much to give me hope that it will soon change.

President Obama gave a stirring inaguration speech. I listened to his every word, and was truly moved by some of the things he said.

To our enemies, he said, "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Fantastic. But he also cited "... the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint" as part of our arsenal in the war on terror. Some people, unfortunately, don't recognize such ideological weapons; in fact they perceive them as weakness.

But... back to fiscal policy and the size/scope of government.

More of President Obama:

"Greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey ... has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work..."

"Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."

"As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate."

All of that sounds great.

But my small-government mind sounds the alarm when I hear something like, "We have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

Is that a new and difficult government task he's referring to, that we should all be loyal to as good Americans?

"... there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."

Is that "purpose" defined by new government mandates?

48 years ago (!), on January 20, 1961, another newly-elected president said, "Ask not what your country can do for you."

How times have changed!

Unfortunately, there seems to be a huge group of citizens and voters who are asking precisely, "What can our government do for us??" And I didn't hear much in President Obama's eloquent speech to refute it.

Obama: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

To be replaced by different programs and initiatives? Most likely.

We have evolved to the point where many feel entitled to cradle-to-grave financial security, free health care, free prescription drugs, free internet. If a bank fails due to incompetence or greed... bail it out! (Give 'em more taxpayer money.) If a company is failing because its customers have abandoned its obsolete product... bail it out! If unwise consumers move in to a house that is way more expensive than they can afford, and fill it with installment-plan furnishings that they can't make payments on... no problem! The taxpayers will pick up the tab! (It'll help the economy!)

Back in JFK's day, government spending was measured, and debated, in the millions. Nowadays they can spend HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS without batting an eye! And if there is no positive result, the answer is "We didn't spend enough - let's spend hundreds of billions more!"

What would George Washington, or Ben Franklin, or Alexander Hamilton, say about how government is conducted in the 21st Century?

And why, oh why, didn't they put something in the Constitution about spending all those billions that haven't been collected yet? That's a heavy burden to put on our kids and grandkids, along with Social Security, Medicare, and all the other ongoing programs. President Bush obviously has tremendous confidence in his daughter's earning power and ability to pay the installments. I suspect Obama will have the same confidence in his two beautiful little daughters.

President Obama's critics say he's a socialist at heart, who will grow government even more than his predecessor. He insists he's a moderate. And the thing about his speech is... it was quite ambiguous, albeit eloquent. And a speech can be delivered by anybody, once it's in the teleprompter. That speech could've been delivered, perhaps without Obama's considerable delivery skills, by Nancy Pelosi or Ron Paul... know what I mean?

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, by nature I'm cautiously optimistic... tempered by a large dose of learned cynicism. "Small government" seems as old-fashioned and quaint as JFK's speech, nowadays.

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