Americans turn to Uncle Sam

The US is entering an era of more active government. Can Washington deliver?

Thanks Allen, Ingrid, and Teresa. Your questions at Tuesday's presidential debate identified a central tension in the campaign. Two of you wanted to know how government can help in tough times – help seniors and help the environment. But Teresa, you wanted to know whether you could even trust either candidate with your money.

Trusting Washington to get the job done is the $700 billion question, especially as it moves toward a more active role in American life.

And it is clearly moving in that direction. If Democrat Barack Obama wins, he'll attempt a mini-New Deal. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office in the depths of the Depression, Mr. Obama would seek to stimulate the economy and create jobs through public investment in infrastructure, from roads to renewable energy.

And he promises to expand the social safety net. Obama wants to give the uninsured access to the same kind of health program that members of Congress enjoy (paid for by repealing Bush tax cuts for the wealthy) and mandate health insurance for children.

Republican John McCain would seek to invigorate a weak economy through tax cuts and incentives, and control government spending. He would improve access to healthcare by providing individuals a $2,500 tax credit to buy insurance.

But even he, like Obama, favors direct investment in energy and greater regulation of the financial sector. He also voted for last week's historic government rescue plan for Wall Street. He suggests that government buy the faltering mortgages of homeowners who can prove they were worthy borrowers.

In times of crisis, the public expects more from government, and not just with financial security. When President Nixon recognized that something needed to be done to protect the environment, he set up the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

In 2007, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 69 percent of Americans said the government has a responsibility to "take care of people who can't take care of themselves," up from 57 percent in 1994 – a time of antigovernment backlash that forced President Clinton to declare: "The era of big government is over."

Also, Americans favor a US guarantee of health insurance for all citizens, even if that means raising taxes. Yet only one third think government usually or almost always gets things right.

As Americans look to Washington, they must be alert to two serious challenges for the government.

One is the exploding federal deficit and debt. Even with the candidates murmuring about sacrifice at the debate, neither has leveled about the effect of America's unbalanced sheet on their plans (unless, like FDR – who faced much higher debt – they will ignore it).

Much less talked about is the dismal shape of the federal government itself. It's top-heavy with managers and short on frontline troops who enforce regulations. It can't compete with the private sector for hires, and has lost expertise through outsourcing (the Treasury is contracting out the rescue plan).

America may be entering a new period of government intervention. But Teresa raised a pertinent question on Tuesday: Can it deliver even if both parties have made a mess of the economy?

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