Ever heard the one about the guy who hated government until a deregulated Wall Street crashed, an oil spill devastated the Gulf of Mexico, a coal mine collapsed, and some good police work stopped a terrorist attack? Rarely has the news of the day run so counter to the spin on the news of the day. It's hard to argue that the difficulties we confront were caused by an excessively powerful "big" government. Rather, most of them arose from the government's failure to do its job in the first place.
The central tasks of democratic government, after all, typically involve standing up for the many against the few, the less powerful against the more powerful. Government is supposed to make sure that corporations are properly supervised when they turn public resources (the environment in the Gulf of Mexico, for example) into private gain. It is charged with protecting those with weaker bargaining positions (coal miners, for example) against the harm that those in stronger bargaining positions might inflict.
Its duty is to keep the private economy running smoothly by preventing fraud, shady dealing and forms of self-interested behavior that threaten the entire system. And yes, it's supposed to keep us safe from physical harm, as it did in New York City. Especially in the economic sphere, government in recent years failed to carry out too many of these basic functions. That explains why this moment's antigovernment feeling reflects two entirely different strains of thinking.
Public attention has largely gone to the strain exemplified by the tea-party movement, opposition to government bailouts and an absolute hatred of Congress. This is the old-fashioned, garden-variety conservatism that somewhere between a fifth and a third of Americans have long subscribed to. These are the citizens you see on television at the anti-Obama rallies, the members of Congress who give speeches denouncing "overregulation," and the think-tankers who insist that the private sector always performs more efficiently and effectively than "government bureaucrats." Their views were definitively summarized many years ago by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now a tea-party friend, who declared: "The market is rational and the government is dumb." Because they have always thought and voted the same way, partisans of this view do not account for shifts in opinion, let alone swing elections.
The more important and dynamic force behind the current disillusionment with government comes instead from those who actually believe it can and should be effective. They do not think that the market is automatically rational or that the government has to be dumb. They are not fed up with government because their ideology or philosophy tells them to be, but because they don't think government has been doing a proper job of promoting prosperity, equity and fair dealing.
So far, the Obama administration has missed the opportunity to demonstrate to such voters how it is changing the way government works. How is its approach to writing and enforcing regulations different from what was done before? How is its management of the agencies different? How are its priorities different? What specific past failures is it addressing? As Al Gore understood when he embarked on his "reinventing government" project for President Bill Clinton, such an undertaking is more essential for liberals and progressives than for conservatives. Conservative ideas generally gain ground when government is discredited. But progressives who insist on government's constructive role can't succeed unless they persuade voters that public agencies are up to the missions they undertake.
Starting with the newly urgent threat of domestic terrorism and the environmental disaster in the Gulf, the administration does not lack for obvious challenges to which it must respond effectively. Competence is the antidote to the electorate's sick feeling about public authority. But President Obama must also press on with the defense of government he offered in his recent University of Michigan commencement address. And he has a new piece of evidence that will help him make his case that government in a free society is not a distant force, but rather something that all of us influence and shape.
We need to remind ourselves that a bomb could have devastated Times Square in the absence of the most basic form of cooperation between an observant merchant and a responsible police officer. That is what happens when government is seen as being in partnership with democratic citizens. And there's nothing dumb about it.
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).