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Monday, May 6, 2013

Chopped Quotation: Reagan's "Government is the Problem"

At CBS News, Jake Miller reports on President Obama's address at Ohio State University:
Laced throughout his exaltation of citizenship was a defense of government, a rebuff of those who insist that the state is always a force for ill.

"Unfortunately, you've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's the root of all our problems, even as some of these voices do their best to gum up the works; they'll warn that tyranny's always lurking just around the corner," the president said. "You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can't be trusted."

"We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to," Mr. Obama continued. "But we don't think the government is the source of all our problems, either...As citizens, we understand that it's not about what Americans can do for us, It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government."

It was an unmistakable attempt to nudge the pendulum of American politics away from the conviction that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem," a line that was immortalized in President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address in 1981.
Miller takes the Reagan quotation out of context. As we explain in our textbook (p. 385 of the second edition):
President Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” His admirers quote that line to demonstrate his passion for cutting wasteful spending and excessive government power. His detractors quote it to portray him as an antigovernment extremist.
Most quotations of the line lop off the first four words, distorting its meaning. By “this present crisis,” he meant the unusual mix of high unemployment and inflation that was plaguing the nation in 1981. Reagan was not speaking of government in general but of specific policies that were purportedly worsening these problems.
And those who quote “government is the problem” seldom mention what he said moments later: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is 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.”