Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Stimulus for a Return to the Era of Big Government

Little-known stories of a well-remembered line.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The "era of big government" is back on, apparently, thanks to Barack Obama and his soon-to-be-passed stimulus package.

You recall, of course, Bill Clinton declaring an end to the era of big government in the 1996 State of the Union address. There are two interesting back-stories to that you may not know (unless you've read my book White House Ghosts).

First, that was not the first time Clinton had talked about the end of the era of big government. Clinton had bandied about the phrase in three little-noticed speeches in October and November 1995. "The era of big government is over, but the era of good government and strong government cannot be over."

Incredibly, the Clinton aides drafting the State of the Union address—Communications Director Don Baer, Chief Speechwriter Michael Waldman, political guru Dick Morris—all say that they had no idea Clinton had used the phrase.

They all recall it having first appeared as a Morris edit of a longer passage that Waldman had written.

"The era of big government is over," Morris had put into a draft of the speech. "But the era of every man for himself must never begin."

Coming from a Democratic president at a time when the debate about the size and scope of the federal government had been brought into sharp relief by recent government shutdowns, it would be a startling pronouncement. The aides thought that the line would stir a debate within the administration, but thought that it worked because while the first clause was an attention-grabber, the second balanced it rhetorically and substantively.

It stirred a different kind of debate. The "era of every man for himself," Clinton campaign spokeswoman Ann Lewis complained, was sexist.

Seriously.

It was, Waldman commented to George Stephanopoulos at the time, the "death of liberalism at its own hands."

Clinton was a strict grammarian and would not accept "the era of every person for himself."

"The era of big government is over," Clinton told a surprised (and for Republicans, delighted) Congress on Jan. 23, 1996. "But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves."

The wordier, more rhetorically cumbersome second sentence got lost in the reaction and was forgotten.

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