‘The Life of Julia’: Creepy Big Government?

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Photo: Courtesy of Obama for America

The Obama reelection campaign has a feature on its website called “The Life of Julia,” illustrating how programmatic differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney would affect the average person. The feature does use a very shaky assumption about Romney’s alleged plans to cut Social Security in order to neatly round out its cradle-to-grave narrative. But conservatives have seized upon it to make a more sweeping condemnation: that it illustrates Obama’s desire to have the government run every facet of your life. The legendary Paul Ryan calls it “creepy,” insisting that “It really shows the philosophical premise they operate from, which is — I think Romney coined it well — it’s a ‘government-centered society.’”

Ross Douthat likewise complains that Obama defines the life of Julia entirely in terms of government programs: “she seems to have no meaningful relationships apart from her bond with the Obama White House: no friends or siblings or extended family, no husband (“Julia decides to have a child,” is all the slide show says), a son who disappears once school starts and parents who only matter because Obamacare grants her the privilege of staying on their health care plan until she’s 26."

Obviously, the feature is about government programs because it’s about politics. If Obama’s website decided to publish a novella about a character whose only interactions were with Head Start and the Affordable Care Act, it would certainly be creepy. But its purpose is to illustrate how public policy affects a person. That, rather than Douthat’s imagined paternalism, explains why Julia’s life story is missing friends, a husband, and so on.

"The Life of Julia” also portrays government in a positive way because this is its contrast with Romney, who has tied himself to a sweeping anti-government agenda. It’s not an embrace of unlimited government, it’s an attack on the extremely truncated vision of government proposed by the Republicans.

This is actually illustrated by a second critique Douthat makes: Julia “is essentially a defense of existing arrangements no matter their effectiveness or sustainability.” Douthat, for instance, asserts that Head Start may not work at all. In fact, the evidence of Head Start’s effectiveness is much more mixed, and some parts of it seem to work extremely well. (Obama has implemented a fundamental reform to tie funding for Head Start programs to their demonstrated effectiveness. The administration is implementing similar reforms across public education and health care spending.)

So the second half of Douthat’s attack here — the lack of concern for effectiveness — is clearly incorrect. The Obama administration is obsessed with effectiveness and sustainability. But it is true that the administration’s message here is about “a defense of existing arrangements” rather than proposing a raft of new government programs. That’s because Obama is not in fact hell-bent on expanding the role of government into every corner of American life. Its health-care reform did expand the welfare state by providing for universal coverage, but it offset that cost in large part by cutting other government spending.

The non-government-centered character of the Obama administration  is illustrated well by Floyd Norris, who shows in today’s New York Times that government has shrunk in huge and unprecedented ways during the Obama administration. Now, granted, the story here is that state and local government spending has collapsed, and federal government spending has increased but not enough to fill in the gap. But the two trends go hand in hand, and the large burst of federal stimulus spending was designed in large part to offset the massive wave of state and local austerity. In the longer run, a more or less similar dynamic plays out. Obama would retrench the government, but not nearly to the same dramatic extent as Romney would.

And this is the policy contrast of the election. It’s not Obama’s government-centric society against Romney’s market-centric society. It’s Obama keeping something resembling the status quo intact — a relatively small government that partially offsets some of the worst imperfections of the market — against the Republican plan to rewrite the social compact.