A “new era of responsibility” has quickly emerged as the tagline for President Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Yet new eras of responsibility seem to begin every four years in Washington. On January 20, 1993, Bill Clinton declared, “We must do what America does best: offer more opportunity to all and demand responsibility from all… Let us all take more responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country.” Apparently dissatisfied with America’s response to his earlier proclamation, Clinton announced in his second inaugural, “Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility—not only for ourselves and our families, but for our neighbors and our nation…With a new vision of government, a new sense of responsibility, a new spirit of community, we will sustain America’s journey.”
Republican presidents have embraced the same rhetorical trope. After taking the oath of office in 2001, George W. Bush declared, “America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected. Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience.” Perhaps this call went unanswered, since Bush observed in his second inaugural that “Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.” Three decades earlier, Richard Nixon said, “From this day forward, let each of us make a solemn commitment in his own heart: to bear his responsibility, to do his part, to live his ideals—so that together, we can see the dawn of a new age of progress for America.”
A cynic might suggest that such paeans to personal responsibility are an empty ritual, no different from the lip service every president pays to “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism,” as President Obama did in his address. Yet this unwavering emphasis on personal responsibility is actually a new thing, one whose emergence tells us something important about the changing nature of American politics.
Resurgent calls for a return to personal responsibility reflect a growing concern that our government, by itself, cannot overcome the challenges our nation faces. Thus, inaugural addresses almost inevitably pair their discourses on responsibility with a declaration that the power of government is limited. In the paragraph that preceded his call for a new era of responsibility, President Obama asserted, “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.” George Bush observed that “The most important tasks of a democracy are done by everyone…What you do is as important as anything government does.” Bill Clinton delivered the harshest message, telling Americans, “It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing, from our government or from each other.”
Today, no president would dare say that an expansion of government is essential to confronting the great challenges of our day. Yet that was the message of Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1937. FDR explained, “Repeated attempts at [our problems’] solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered… Nearly all of us recognize that as intricacies of human relationships increase, so power to govern them also must increase—power to stop evil; power to do good.”
During the first decades of the Cold War, inaugural addresses spoke of sacrifice rather than responsibility. In his first speech, Dwight Eisenhower urged, “We must be willing, individually and as a nation, to accept whatever sacrifices may be required of us. A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” Most famously, John F. Kennedy declared, “my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
The critical difference between this rhetoric of sacrifice and today’s rhetoric of responsibility is that Eisenhower and Kennedy asked their audience to put the needs of the country ahead of their needs as individuals, whereas Clinton, Bush, and Obama have asked Americans to take responsibility for their own welfare so that they don’t become dependent on the government. Thus, Lyndon Johnson instructed in his inaugural, “Each of us must find a way to advance the purpose of the nation, thus finding new purpose for ourselves.”
Johnson was the last of the Cold War breed in terms of his inaugural rhetoric. In 1969, Richard Nixon insisted, “we are approaching the limits of what government alone can do. Our greatest need now is to reach beyond government, and to enlist the legions of the concerned and the committed.” In 1973, in striking contrast to JFK’s call to “ask what you can do for your country,” Nixon’s second inaugural suggested, “In our own lives, let each of us ask—not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?” Compared to JFK’s noble summons, Nixon’s words seem to invoke an uncomfortably selfish notion of citizenship. Yet if dependence on the government is the challenge to be overcome, then Nixon’s advice makes perfect sense.
Whereas Nixon emphasized self-reliance, Reagan assailed the government’s fitness to play the leading role it had assumed in American life. In his first inaugural, Reagan demanded to know, “if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” Four years later, Reagan admonished his audience, saying “We asked things of government that government was not equipped to give. We yielded authority to the national government that properly belonged to states or to local governments or to the people themselves…We have already started returning to the people and to state and local governments responsibilities better handled by them.”
As conservatives advertise triumphantly and liberals acknowledge with a measure of regret, Reagan recast our national debate about the role of government. Since Clinton’s successful campaign in 1992, Democratic contenders have insisted that the days of big government are over and the days of effective government have begun. Or as President Obama phrased it, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
Should we expect, then, that President Obama will hesitate to expand the role of government unless there is proof that new initiatives will work? Both Republicans and Democrats may be inclined to argue that the rhetoric of responsibility is unrelated to its practice. Republicans note that the signature project of Bill Clinton’s first term in office was nationalized healthcare. Democrats argue that George Bush did nothing to capitalize on the spirit of service that emerged in the days after 9/11.
The deeper problem is that we remain unsure of how government can promote responsibility without imposing it. White House preaching on the virtue of discipline and prudence does not seem to have much effect. In the midst of an economic crisis, cutting back on government services may be counterproductive. If our new president can resolve the dilemma of how to cultivate personal responsibility, he may earn himself a distinguished place in American history.
-David Adesnik is a policy analyst focusing on defense issues. He was on the McCain-Palin 2008 foreign policy staff, and blogs at Conventional Folly.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire