Jobs and the economy dominated Wednesday night’s presidential debate. That is not surprising given the persistent high unemployment rate and the generally sorry state of the economy. Unfortunately, a consequence of this almost singular focus by both candidates was that the question of the appropriate role of the federal government got short shrift. But it got just enough to be very revealing.
With only minutes remaining, debate moderator Jim Lehrer asked both candidates to explain how they “view the mission of the federal government.” President Obama led off, stating: “The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe. … And as commander-in-chief, that is something that I’ve worked on and thought about every single day.” Mitt Romney followed, saying: “First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means a military second to none.”
On the surface these responses suggest little to distinguish the two candidates. It’s all about protecting Americans from forces of evil that sometimes threaten from foreign lands. But beyond the conventional and expected endorsement of a strong national defense, indeed even in the chosen language, there are stark and important differences.
Obama went on the say that “the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.” After a nod to free enterprise as “the genius of America,” Obama offered Abraham Lincoln as exemplar that “there are also some things we do better together.” Here he was referring not to winning a war that saved the Union, but to government subsidies of the transcontinental railroads and land grant colleges.
For his part, Romney drew upon the language of the nation’s founding documents. He spoke of “life and liberty,” and reminded the president that “we are endowed by our creator with our rights.” He was careful to note that with rights come responsibilities, including the responsibility to care for the “less fortunate,” but underscored that individuals have “the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals.”
The word “liberty” seldom crosses the lips of President Obama. He speaks of rights and freedom, but usually in the form of freedom from want and rights granted by government to overcome misfortune and deprivation. These are noble objectives, to be sure, but dependent on a prosperous society able to deliver on the promises and mandates of government. Romney understands the connection between liberty and prosperity. It is not clear that Obama does.
But what can we expect of a president whose preparation for office was community organizing and legislating. The role of the community organizer is to lobby government for services and benefits. The role of the legislator, all too often, is to deliver those services and benefits.
In today’s America, community organizers are not in the business of creating the sorts of private associations about which Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America — private associations that often participated directly in the economy as cooperatives and local regulators advancing the cause of free enterprise. Rather their purpose is to demand action from government, usually in the name of fairness and community. Again, noble causes, but pursued with a singular understanding that government is the solution.
In the debate Barack Obama revealed himself once again as a communitarian with little understanding of, or appreciation for, the relationship between liberty and prosperous communities. But it cannot really be a revelation. It is who he is, and where he has been.
Romney made clear his understanding that prosperity — whether measured by individual incomes, community strength or the welfare of the least well-off — depends on liberty. He knows that because he has lived it — it is where he has been.
Those few words, spoken by both candidates near the close of the debate, revealed much about the choice we face come November 6. For Romney, Lehrer’s question about the role of the federal government elicited language from the Declaration of Independence, which declares that governments are instituted to protect God-given rights. For Obama it brought to mind government’s role as provider.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.