An old Washington axiom splits American presidents into two categories: those who want to be something and those who want to do something. “President Obama wants to do something,” columnist George Will *68 told a Princeton audience in a Dec. 9 lecture at the Lewis Library. But Obama’s plans, in Will’s view, would advance a “dependency agenda” that threatens the national character of the United States.
In his wide-ranging speech, sponsored by the James Madison Program, Will pointed to the federal government’s growing reach in the financial system and bailouts of American automakers as examples of a larger pattern of government expansion. He also critiqued campaign-finance laws and weighed in on the health-care reform debate, calling the proposed public option an effort to “engineer increased dependency.”
Will, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton’s politics department, drew on history to explain the current political landscape, focusing on the influence of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The latter, he said, aimed to guarantee the material well-being of Americans, and as a consequence, “more and more Americans began to look to Washington with a sense of entitlement.”
Today, Will sees a persistent sense of entitlement: “Dependency is considered socially wholesome, that it is a kind of equality that we can all participate in, being common clients of a common government.”
Has this attitude changed America’s national character? Not fundamentally, Will said; but “‘so far, so good’ isn’t good enough,” he added.
“We’ve come a long way from the past way of understanding the role of government as a protector of pre-existing natural rights — a maintainer of order — to facilitate the private pursuit of happiness,” Will said. “We’ve come a long way from that, and there are grounds, if I am right, for worry.”