WASHINGTON — The economy needs to be fixed. On this, Democrats and Republicans agree. They part ways over how to do it and, specifically, what role the federal government should play.
"Ultimately," President Barack Obama tells Congress, "our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help." His argument that government has a responsibility to do so probably doesn't sit well with an America that's down on Washington.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other Republicans competing for his job take a different tack as they court a tea party-infused GOP electorate: The economy will thrive, they say, if Washington simply gets out of the way. As Perry puts it: "Smaller government, less spending, fewer regulations."
At the heart of the 2012 presidential race is an issue as old as the country itself. Is it the federal government's responsibility to address what ails the nation, in this case the economy? And if so, to what degree? What is the right balance?
History tells us that, try as we might, we may never answer those questions; we've been debating them ever since the Jeffersonians and the Federalists squabbled over states' rights vs. a strong central government. In the end, the Constitution assigned certain powers to the federal government while reserving others to states.
But the tension in America between the purely local and a far-off central government has never gone away. Nor, perhaps, should it in an ever-evolving democracy.
These days, Republicans argue for a limited government, claiming that lower taxes and less regulation will encourage job creation. Democrats advocate a more robust government, one that provides more services, pours more money into the economy and, in Obama's case, raises taxes on the nation's highest earners.
"We've been in this pattern for decades. These are the terms of our politics probably for the next generation, too," said Charles Kesler, who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College and edited "Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding."
Given the scripts, the question that ultimately determines who wins the presidency might be this: What do Americans want from their government?
For many, the answer is difficult to articulate.
Larry Parkin, a conservative who hosts a discussion group on the Federalist Papers with the South Pinellas 9.12 Patriots in St. Petersburg, Fla., just started collecting Social Security, which he calls a contract with the government. The 65-year-old Coast Guard retiree expects the country to secure the borders and protect the nation. Beyond that, he says: "I expect them to be less intrusive than they are. I expect them to have a limited role."
But he struggles to identify exactly where the line between too much and too little government lies.
Ask Ashley Stilos, a liberal in Fayetteville, Ark., the same question and she says one of the government's roles is to take care of its people, adding: "Every individual should have the right to pursue happiness from an equal fighting ground, and that's not the way it is in society."
Is it the government's job to make that playing field level? The 27-year-old university loan specialist says: "They have the power to make it more equal, and it's their responsibility to do that."
Americans' views of government have shifted in recent years, according to an analysis of Associated Press exit polls.
In 1992, more than half of voters thought government was doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. But by 2008, a majority, for the first time, wanted government to do more to solve the nation's problems.
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