The Obama Vision of Federal Government

President Obama speaks at Xavier University in New Orleans on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty Images

Officially—and unofficially—the Beck-Palin rally in Washington yesterday and President Obama's speech in New Orleans today had nothing to do with each other.

But, back to back, they framed the furious argument at the core of this fall's campaign and of the next two years: can and do we believe in the president's vision of an activist, deeply-involved-at-the-local-level, "community"-invoking federal government?

We know what the Tea Partiers and their fellow travelers think. They are shouting "NO!" as loudly as they can, even as they rely on their Social Security and their Medicare, on their Interstates and tax cuts and credits, on student loans and weather satellites and air-traffic-control-systems and research earmarks.

Obama took the glaring, instructive opportunity of the fifth anniversary of Katrina—the deadliest and costliest natural catastrophe in American history—to try to defend the proposition that the first part of his presidency has undermined for many voters: that the federal government can actually help people.

The last 18 months have seen a hurricane of legislative activity by Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress. From bank and auto bailouts to health care to financial-services reform, the bill-passing season produced literally thousands of pages of new law.

But most of that activity has succeeded in confirming Republican suspicions (though there was little Obama could have done) and driving away independents, the largest slice of the electorate and one particularly obsessed (or so they tell poll-takers) with the federal deficit and our debt to future generations.

More important, all of that macro-level legislating has done little, so far, to affect the economic lives of Americans as a whole. The unemployment rate is high, home prices and sales are shaky, the job market is bleak, and can-do confidence has gone missing.

As the president spoke, his job-approval rating in the Gallup Poll rested at 43 percent, the lowest of his tenure.

So the real subject of Obama's speech was not really New Orleans per se. Democrats don't have much chance of winning the Senate race this year, and Obama has even less chance of winning Louisiana in 2012. Rather, he was giving a stirring Sunday secular sermon on the value of the federal government—and on the idea of national community that, in its best incarnations, it does or should represent to us all.

He wanted to prove not only to the people of the state but the people of the nation that the feds can be a source for good. And he wanted to make the point—without stating it directly—that those who had come before, that is, the Republican Bush administration, had not done the job for this part of the "real" America.

So he cited the expertise, local roots and frequent presence in the city of members of his cabinet. He came with news that the Orleans Parish school system was about to get a check for $1.8 billion. He talked about the ground-breaking for the new VA hospital. He talked about progress on "the largest civil works project" ever—the new 100-year-flood levee system. He talked about how his FEMA director—unlike a certain hapless fellow in the Bush administration—had no less than 25 years of disaster-relief experience—in hurricane-prone Florida, no less.

While he was at it, he threw in statistics about what many had considered his administration's slow response to the BP oil spill. The numbers were impressive: 47,000 people on the ground, 7,000 vessels on the water—and BP's promise of $20 billion to make the Gulf Coast region whole again.

The feds, he said, had provided indispensable help that, together with local and charitable efforts, was helping New Orleans "rebuild stronger than before." The same feds aim to help the region get "all the way back on its feet."

All in all, the president said, he wants New Orleans to be "a place that stands for what we can do in America, not what we can't do"—not a symbol of "abandonment, but a community working together to meet shared challenges."

If you've been to New Orleans recently, and I have, you can see that federal help has indeed played an important part, finally, in the city's revival. How much though—and whether it was timely and efficient—is not as clear as Obama made it out to be. Local pride, civic organization and even the New Orleans Saints had a lot to do with it, too.

And that's what the argument is about, not only in New Orleans, but in a middle-class country still mired in fear and recession.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments:
Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country