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Big government's big comeback

'What I have no interest in doing is running GM," President Obama said Monday as he assumed ownership of the beacon of free enterprise.

'What I have no interest in doing is running GM," President Obama said Monday as he assumed ownership of the beacon of free enterprise.

"The era of big government is over," then-President Bill Clinton famously declared in 1996, and even if no one believed it, virtually everyone thought it a very politic thing to say for the first Democratic president since Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.

When GM emerges from bankruptcy, the U.S. government will own 60 percent of it and Canada 12.5 percent. That's a lot of government.

Could Americans have changed that much? How do you get from Reagan to Obama in a generation?

In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale proposed increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, precisely what Obama proposed as a candidate and what he has incorporated into his budgets as president. Mondale lost 49 states. Obama is riding high.

In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was ridiculed for being soft on crime and weak on defense. Having been there, I'd be the first to say Dukakis didn't respond forcefully enough or mount effective counterattacks. But at least one reason for that was that every survey showed and every smart politician advised that if he got near ideology, he would lose.

That generation lost to Richard Nixon and lost to Reagan and even lost to George W. Bush, and Bush thought that Americans wanted less government and lower taxes and that offering anything else was punishable by political death. The lesson was that it took a Clinton to win, a moderate Democrat who wouldn't scare all those Reagan Democrats away.

If you have any doubt that era has ended, forget about the Democrats and look at the Republicans. They keep saying the same things they've been saying for three decades, casting government as the enemy and the private sector as the savior and repeating the old lines about keeping the money you earn because you spend it better than government does. Sure, it moves the dial on cable television, where 1 percent of all Americans watching make a ratings knockout. But in national politics, the Republicans aren't even on the radar screen. They're about as irrelevant as Senate Democrats were in the early Reagan years.

Presidential politics has always been personal. Reagan was a compelling leader. So is Obama. You can admire him even if he's more conservative or liberal than you are; if anything, it makes him seem more genuine. The fact that Obama has succeeded in promoting big government and higher taxes (and more diplomacy and fewer bombs) does not mean that a lesser politician could win with that message.

Presidential politics is also, always, about timing. The Reagan revolution may not have added up on paper: Cut taxes, raise defense spending, and how could you not get a deficit? But double-digit inflation and interest rates, gas lines, and Carter's telling us that we had malaise counted for more than mere arithmetic problems. So, too, in this election: Once the credit market collapsed, John McCain was simply doomed. As always, it was the economy, stupid.

It still is. It's just that the economy has turned upside down, and until somebody comes up with another idea, it really is Obama's way or the highway. If we believe in it, it may work. This requires, above all, a leader who can make us believe.

GM will come out of bankruptcy stronger than ever? Sure, I'll put my pension on that. I think we just did.