President Biden does not have the rhetorical gifts of Barack Obama. He isn’t a natural teacher like Bill Clinton, who can explain — ex tempore, no less — the most abstruse concepts in clear and unpatronizing language. He can’t twist congressional arms to pass legislation the way LBJ could like no other before or since. But anyone who paid close attention to his first address to Congress would have recognized real leadership. If it went unnoticed, perhaps that’s because for too long we have been without it.
The opinion pages and TV pundits and bloviators have all had their say; I’ll wager that few if any noticed this gem, tucked into his introductory remarks:
Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity. Scientific breakthroughs took us to the moon. Now we’re on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the internet and so much more. These are investments we made together as one country. And investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future. That’s why I propose the American Jobs Plan, a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.
[Emphasis added.] Investments that only the government [can] make: This is a subtle rebuke to Republicans and free-marketeers. There are in this world some things that only government can do. It isn’t enough to hope that ambitious capitalists will undertake the basic research that leads to so much more; it isn’t sufficient to believe that government regulation is ipso facto oppressive and that corporations can better regulate themselves, with no ill public effect.
Just this past week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) opined that, “No policymaker would allow a company to dump toxic waste into a river upstream of a thriving town he is charged with governing.” This is like saying that no company would ever prioritize its profits over the interests of its customers by, say, cutting corners on workplace safety or using poisonous food additives. Except that it happens all the time. Rubio represents a political party ideologically opposed to government regulation of any kind. The only part of his statement that rings true is its cognitive dissonance.
Things only government can do. This gets at the very purpose of government, of good government. Republicans might be fond of quoting Jefferson — “That government is best, which governs least” — but they emphasize least while paying little or no attention to best. They know quite well that “least” doesn’t mean, as little as humanly possible; it means, just enough to get things right. There are things only government can do: provide for the general welfare and common defense, for example.
But really, that isn’t enough: good government should be aspirational — “We choose to go to the moon”1; good government should rise to the occasion; and good government should set new goals for itself as a nation, for its people’s betterment. Some great things aren’t ever going to be done by the private sector; some things, these things, only government can do.
- John F. Kennedy, address at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962.