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Selling Government, One Benefit At a Time

David Callahan

Trust in government has almost been never been lower among Americans, and the botched rollout of Obamacare has made things even worse. But maybe that's not such a big deal.  

Because here's the thing: Americans may distrust government in the abstract, but they like the benefits it delivers in practice. So much so that pollsters are hard pressed to identify a single government benefit or service that a majority of the public favors cutting. The only reason that sequestration is happening right now is because the GOP extorted these cuts by taking hostage the U.S. credit rating. None of the cuts are popular at all. 

What this means is that the big ideological battle over "the role of government" -- a battle that progressives tend to lose in a frontier country practically founded on anti-statism and individualism -- may matter far less than smaller battles over particular programs. 

The Affordable Care Act is a perfect case in point. In a major speech, President Obama began the work today of reminding Americans why Congress enacted health reform in the first place, detailing its concrete benefits.

Obama mounted a broad and sweeping historical defense of government activism. But getting through about the specific benefits is where he's likely to make gains -- even if there is little movement in the overall share of Americans who say they approve of the ACA writ large. 

As has so often been pointed out, Americans have always supported the individual provisions of the ACA even as they have split over the program as a whole. This underscores the broader axiom that Americans tend to be "ideologically conservative and operationally liberal." 

I'm as guilty as the next progressive of hankering for the big ideological fight over government. And I've always supported efforts to find better ways to talk about and sell government. But maybe a small bore approach is really better: just keep hammering home the specific benefits that government brings to people, as the Obama team plans to do in coming weeks with the Affordable Care Act.