Sometimes your opponents can see what you’re doing more clearly than your friends can. Some progressives were put off by the rather Reaganesque rhetoric of the State of the Union address, but Mark Thiessen of AEI recognized it for what it was: an attempt to harness “American exceptionalism” to pull the plough of activist government. When Wes Clark tried the same thing either Andy Sabl or I called it “the liberalism of national greatness.” I thought it was a winner then, and I think it’s a winner now.
And – contrary to the more conventional Reaganite rhetoric – Obama’s message is fully consistent with one strand of the Founding. One of the striking features of The Audacity of Hope was Obama’s identification with the thought of Hamilton, carried into the second generation as Henry Clay’s American Plan. From the Louisian Purchase, the Erie Canal, and the transcontinental railroad to land-grant colleges, homesteading, rural electrification, the GI Bill, interstate highways, and the Internet, the Federal government has again and again been the agent of crucial economic innovation. The Springfield Armory was turning out mass-produced rifles when Henry Ford was still in diapers.
Of course the feds have also sponsored boondoggles from manned spaceflight and coal gasification to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and corn ethanol. If you take risks, you sometimes fail, and if you make stupid decisions under political pressure you’re that much more likely to fail. But the notion that the gummint ought to keep its nose out of the economy – or, for that matter, that a monopoly granted by a patent is somehow not a governmental intervention in the market – accords with neither logic nor history.