Listening to the State of the Union address two weeks ago, I was struck by the wisdom of my friend Brian’s recent rant about political dialogue in this country. According to Brian, the dominant political figure in the United States today is still Ronald Reagan. We live still, according to the Brian’s school of thought, in the Age of Reagan and we debate our policies and positions in the vocabulary and framework that President Reagan established thirty years ago. I have to admit that he has a point.
While the President’s address was, I believe, dignified in tone and substantive in content, it is true nonetheless that he interwove in his discussion an acknowledgment that we must constrain government, for fiscal and moral reasons, from over-reaching and over-spending. In a manner unthinkable in an FDR fireside chat, President Obama was addressing – articulately and intelligently – the implied question whether government is the problem or the solution, and the President’s answer was that it is both. Remarkable. This is the framework that Ronald Reagan established. You can almost hear the Gipper giving the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union and opening with a “there you go again.”
In one sense, this of course has been the core issue in political philosophy in the western world since the ancient Greeks. Surely, this framework of debate would come as no surprise to the Founding Fathers; indeed, the Constitution itself is a compromise between the two poles of this dialectic. On the other hand, the fundamental legitimacy of the modern welfare state has been a given in western political thought since the time of Bismarck in the late 19th century. To hear this question asked and answered again in the 2011 State of the Union is a tribute to the enduring power of President Reagan to shape the debate.