Sometimes Government Is Essential
Published: October 24th, 2014
By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

Two years ago, President Obama was striding the beaches of New Jersey and spearheading the federal response to the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Gov. Chris Christie was praising the president and Washington's help for his battered state -- much to the dismay of his fellow Republicans.

Four out of 5 voters shared Christie's support for the president's actions, and Sandy helped solidify Obama's decisive victory over Mitt Romney just a few days later.

Today, the political landscape has shifted dramatically. The role of government has turned from an asset to a liability for Obama. His favorable rating in the latest ABC/Washington Post poll has sunk to 40 percent, the lowest mark of his presidency.

Since those heady days on the Jersey shore, a string of missteps has soured the public and provided Republicans with a prime political opening. The botched rollout of Obamacare was compounded by scandals at the Veterans Administration, the IRS and the Secret Service. Then came Ebola.

A patient being treated at a Texas hospital died from the disease. Two nurses were infected, and one was allowed to board a plane to Cleveland.

A poll by Politico reports that only 22 percent of Americans have "a lot of confidence" in the federal response to the disease -- a dreadful result for Democratic candidates already struggling to separate themselves from Obama.

"This is feeding into the Republican narrative that Democrats don't know how to govern and government is too large," Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, told The Washington Post.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, made a similar point on "Meet the Press": "This health concern is more real than it would be if there wasn't this sense that the government is just not being managed in a way that people would want it to be managed."

He's right, and to some extent the administration is suffering from self-inflicted wounds. The problems with Obamacare were unacceptable and unforgivable, especially since the White House had to know that Republicans would pounce on any mistake.

Sean G. Kaufman, an official at Emory University Hospital, which successfully treated two aid workers infected with Ebola, told the New York Times that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided guidelines to the Texas hospital that were "absolutely irresponsible and dead wrong."

Still, there's another side to this story. For one thing, some cable news shows and social media sites have been hysterical and irresponsible, stoking fears and phobias in their relentless search for clicks and eyeballs.

For another, notes Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, opponents of the administration have also been irresponsible, using Ebola "for political purposes to sort of shoot at the government." One example: advocating bans on travelers from West Africa, when epidemiologists trying to contain Ebola argue that that would make their job much harder.

On a deeper level, critics of the administration -- and Washington in general -- can be profoundly hypocritical. They "shoot at the government" when it suits their political purposes, tearing down its reputation and depriving it of adequate financing. And then they complain when the Feds fail to deliver the services their constituents want and expect.

Collins made this point in an interview with Sam Stein of the Huffington Post. The NIH budget has been flat for a decade, he noted, but given inflation, the agency's purchasing power is down 23 percent. As a result, research on Ebola has slowed dramatically, and 14 grants have been shelved.

"NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001," Collins said. "Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would have gone through clinical trials and would have been ready."

Collins did say "probably," and there are no guarantees in medical research. Spending federal money is not the only way to solve every problem. And taxpayer dollars are not always used wisely or efficiently.

But in some cases, the federal government is an absolutely essential force in making life better for many Americans. That was true two years ago in New Jersey, when only Washington had the resources to step in and help victims of Hurricane Sandy.

And it's true today in the case of Ebola. Only the federal government is willing and able to fund the research that could eventually produce a drug to treat its victims, and a vaccine to halt its spread.

Government is not always the answer. But it's not always the enemy, either.


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