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June 9th, 2010 9:40 pm
Unfulfillable Promises, Inevitable Disappointment
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With Barack Obama’s presidency at one of its undeniable low points, the commander-in-chief’s booster club in the beltway media is tying itself in knots attempting to locate blame anywhere but Pennsylvania Avenue.

The last time we saw the press corps engaged in this sort of intellectual yoga it was to push the notion that Obama’s “failures” were rooted in communication — that he was making prime rib arguments to a country that could only digest apple sauce. This line of reasoning has reached its apogee with Jonathan Alter’s recent hagiography of Obama, “The Promise: President Obama, Year One”, which practically drools over the president’s intellect and regularly laments the country’s refusal to comprehend the profundity of his liberal vision quest.

Lately, a new form of hand-wringing is taking center stage. It’s exemplified by journalists like the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, who writes on the Post’s Plum Line blog today:

… the Gulf oil spill may pose a serious threat to one of the most important aspects of Obama’s presidency: his effort to restore public confidence in government as competent, as a trustworthy agent of genuine and lasting reform.

Note Sargent’s peculiar phrasing, which frames the spill as a hurdle to Obama’s unified theory of government, not a refutation of it. Yet as Ron Fournier noted in an Associated Press column earlier this week:

While there were surely crises of faith during the Civil War, the Progressive Era and others times of tumult, the early 20th century was marked by a reflexive sense of trust in the nation’s institutions. Even as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal vastly expanded the government safety net, a new breed of private charities and social reformers didn’t bother waiting on government to help the poor, infirm and abused.

But things started to change in the mid-20th century, when polls showed a steady decline on the question of whether Americans trusted government in Washington to do what is right.

From 1958, when more than 70 percent said they trusted government most or all of the time, the trend line steadily drops until it hits the mid-20s in the post-Watergate era.

Looking at those figures closely, it’s hard to miss the trend. As American government ballooned during the 20th century, the public progressively lost faith in it. The decline starts when the expansion of the welfare state begins to showcase government incompetence and compounds when Watergate adds malevolence to the mix. Could it be that Americans don’t trust the government because it has appropriated responsibilities it can’t fulfill?

Consider the functions that all but the most staunch libertarians believe government should be responsible for: defending the nation, collecting taxes, developing infrastructure, securing the border, delivering the mail. In these areas, the government is intermittently competent at best, but benefits some from the fact that its inefficiency isn’t being spotlighted by private-sector competition. When it steps over the line into smothering civil society, the evidence of government waste and stupidity becomes nearly impossible to deny.

Does President Obama have a growing problem with Americans’ faith in government? Yes. But the culprit is not the fates conspiring against him. Rather it’s the root of so many of his problems: he’s beginning to suffer the wages of making promises it’s impossible for him to keep.

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