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Which of these presidents thought that “government is the problem?”

I was turned off by his statement, ‘Government is not the answer to the problems; government is the problem.’ I didn’t agree with that. I’ve always thought that every major problem facing the United States cannot be solved without the full and active support of the United States government, and that far from being the problem, government is our only hope to deal with the healthcare crisis, the environmental crisis, educational problems, and other things. So that turned me off right at the beginning.

—George McGovern on the 1980 presidential election, Edward M. Kennedy Oral History

It would be easy to assume that George McGovern was referring to Ronald Reagan when he recalled the 1980 presidential election for the Miller Center’s Edward M. Kennedy Oral History. After all, Senator McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, sounded as though he were quoting from Reagan’s first inaugural address: “In this present crisis,” said President Reagan in January of 1981, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

But McGovern wasn’t talking about Reagan.

In fact, he was talking about Reagan’s opponent, President Jimmy Carter, who, in the event, lost the election decisively. McGovern was explaining why he had urged Senator Kennedy to challenge a sitting president for the Democratic Party nomination in 1980, and there was a reason he remembered Carter sounding like Reagan.

“Government cannot solve our problems,” said President Carter in his 1978 State of the Union. "It can't set our goals; it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.”

A year and a half later, Carter reiterated the theme in a televised speech to the nation: “But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America.” His call for Americans to face what he labeled their “crisis of confidence” was initially well-received before the public decided that maybe he had been blaming them for problems they couldn’t solve alone.

A suspicion that government was serving the powerful, not the people, is woven throughout Carter’s presidential campaign and tenure in office, but it was more than a rhetorical theme. His presidency saw the beginnings of deregulation—of the airline, trucking, railroad, and financial industries—so often associated with President Reagan. And he was determined to reduce the annual federal budget deficit, which declined from $74 billion (4.1 percent of GDP) in 1976 under Gerald Ford to $41 billion (1.6 percent of GDP) in 1979. (For purposes of comparison, the 2015 federal budget deficit was $438 billion, or 2.5 percent of GDP.)

Of course it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Carter was against all government action. He failed in his push for a new consumer protection bill, but he was able to raise the minimum wage, secure a “superfund” to clean up toxic waste sites, and pass two rounds of new energy legislation to decrease dependence on imported oil.

Similarly, President Reagan wasn’t against government programs and actions always and everywhere. Along with the phrase, “In this present crisis,” which qualified his declaration that “government is the problem,” Reagan included this in his first inaugural: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.” These sentiments would have fit quite nicely into Carter’s rhetorical cannon.

Reagan certainly wanted to reduce the role of government in many areas, but he also found government programs to support vigorously. Unlike Carter, who limited military spending in the interest of reducing deficits and killing wasteful projects, Reagan proposed massive increases in defense expenditures. In 1983 he won legislation that restored financial solvency to Social Security, and although he aimed to chip away at some of President Johnson’s Great Society programs, his diaries make clear that he wanted to leave Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal largely intact. Annual budget deficits—and the national debt—increased significantly during Reagan's time in office.

This history raises an important question: Maybe the most important political debates in American society aren’t really about whether government should solve our problems or not. It’s actually rather easy to find government programs that conservatives generally support or that liberals largely distrust. Maybe the real debates are about what the government can and should address and what it cannot and should not. Perhaps reasonable people can disagree about the answers to these questions, and come at those answers from liberal and conservative perspectives, and still manage to compromise on occasion.

If most of us, from average citizens to presidents, both want things from government and distrust it at the same time, we’re in good company. It’s a tension built into the Constitution itself, with a preamble stating several very ambitious goals for the new government (to “form a more perfect Union” and  “promote the general Welfare,” for instance) before applying checks, balances, and limits to government power.

They might not have agreed on a lot of things, but Presidents Carter and Reagan were both suspicious of government, though perhaps for different reasons. It's history we would do well to remember.

Date edited: 07/27/2016 (2:28PM)


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