Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

One of the quirks of Republican speechmaking is that for all their bluster about small government, Republicans often define their achievements by how much money they spend. President Bush, for instance, touted the extra education funding he doled out alongside the reforms of No Child Left Behind.

I’ve always thought it’s a bit of a losing battle, because no matter how much a Republican wants to spend on something (save defense), a Democratic opponent is likely to offer more. President Obama, for instance, spent the 2008 campaign accusing President Bush of penury when it came to education – and then essentially doubled education funding when he signed the stimulus bill into law.

But now that Democrats are in power, and using that power pretty aggressively, President Obama has been copping a Republican line — making sure people know he doesn’t really like all this big-government stuff.

So we have his assurance that he doesn’t want to be running the auto companies and that his health reform proposal won’t actually change very much at all about the present system (assuming you like it).

When unveiling financial regulation reforms yesterday, he said, “I’ve always been a strong believer in the power of the free market…. I believe that jobs are best created not by government, but by businesses and entrepreneurs who are willing to take a risk on a good idea. I believe that our role is not to disparage wealth, but to expand its reach.”

And in a Clintonesque moment Tuesday, he told the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, “I think the irony … is that I actually would like to see a relatively light touch when it comes to the government.”

President Obama unironically delivers these lines because he recognizes that as much as Americans may like the idea of government directing money to favored concepts (education, health care, energy, defense), they don’t particularly like the idea of a large government that gets its tentacles into everything.

Yet the president’s rhetoric is on soggy ground here. As Mark pointed out below, Barack Obama’s idea of fiscal restraint resembles Imelda Marcos’s, and it’s beginning to sink into the national psyche. A new WSJ poll finds Americans are increasingly skittish about the deficit and debt, and less sanguine on President Obama’s handling of the economy.

The danger for Team Obama is that just as Democrats can always outflank Republicans on spending, Republicans (despite recent history) can score quick points when it comes to keeping a lid on government. Without any real credentials when it comes to being a “light touch” guy, the president may be opening the door to a debate he can’t win.

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