Vice President Joe Biden is tired of seeing the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan demeaned, derided, and dismissed, and he wanted to talk about it.
But a funny thing happened in the course of an interview at Biden's White House office on Tuesday afternoon. The vice president's passions poured forth not when he was offering his point-by-point defense of the economic recovery plan but on the question of whether the United States is in decline.
Late in the conversation, I asked Biden about the surprise applause line in President Obama's State of the Union speech -- "I do not accept second place for the United States of America." Will we hear more on the America-as-No.-1 theme?
What followed was a torrent, in red, white and blue.
"From me you're going to hear more," he replied emphatically. "I want to tell you something, because if we cede the ground to those who suggest that -- I don't mean foreigners, I mean domestic critics -- that somehow, we are destined to fulfill (historian Paul) Kennedy's prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended, then we might as well throw it in now, for God's sake. I mean it's ridiculous."
On he went. "Give me a break. So many people have bet on our demise that it absolutely drives me crazy.... There's sort of an attitude that is both politically directed by our Republican friends but also believed by a fair number of people that we just can't make this transition in the twenty-first century.
"We will continue to be the most significant and dominant influence in the world as long as our economy is strong, growing and responsive to twenty-first-century needs. And they relate to education, they relate to energy and they relate to health care."
Biden, more self-aware than people give him credit for, realized what he had just done. "I've sort of gotten off the Recovery Act," he said with a rueful smile.
Yet by the end of the interview, I realized he had bumped into the hidden political issue of the 2010 elections. Beneath the predictable back-and-forth between Obama and his Republican adversaries over government spending lies a substantively important difference over how the United States can maintain its global leadership.
For Republicans, American power is rooted largely in military might and showing a tough and resolute face to the world. They would rely on tax cuts as the one and only spur to economic growth.
Obama, Biden, and the Democrats, on the other hand, believe that American power depends ultimately on the American economy, and that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth.
Notice that when Obama spoke about keeping America in first place, he said not a word about the military. He referred instead to the efforts of our competitors in the public sphere of the economy, and of our past complacency.
"Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse," Obama said. "Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations -- they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs."
Suddenly, Obama's approach is not about old-fashioned Democratic spending. It's about patriotism, competing successfully, investing to maintain American economic leadership. John F. Kennedy provided a slogan for such an effort fifty years ago: "Let's get America moving again."
Obama's handlers can be terribly tough on Biden for digressing from the narrow point they want him to make. So let the record show that he spent most of our interview ably defending how the stimulus money has been spent and what it's accomplished.
Biden's insistence on "pushing back" against unfounded criticisms of the program was clearly part of Obama's post-Scott Brown offensive, and it's bracing that the administration has finally seen the wisdom of an axiom from Napoleon that is a favorite of Karl Rove's: "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack."
Transforming a listless national argument about the stimulus and health care into a larger debate over how to maintain American pre-eminence is both audacious and useful. Off-message, Biden found the right message.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).