By James M. Perry
Too modest, pundits claimed about President Obama's State of the Union speech. Where, they asked, are the Big Ideas?
They didn't say, exactly, what Big Ideas they had in mind. That's because Big Ideas come along only now and again, years apart.
George Washington's Big Ideas were, first, when he was a general, to defeat Great Britain and achieve America's independence, and second, when the war was over, make the presidency work. He achieved both, making him the greatest president in our history.
Abraham Lincoln had two Big Ideas as well -- save the Union and free the slaves. He achieved both, making him our second greatest president.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had two Big, and necessary, Ideas -- end the Great Depression and win the war. He tried everything he and his advisors could think of to end the depression. Some worked, some didn't. In the process, though, by the force of his own forceful and ebullient personality, he restored faith in the nation's future. He also helped to win the deadliest war in history. He was our third greatest president.
Big Ideas aren't always Good Ideas. Ronald Reagan had a fairly Big Idea -- cut the size of government. He really didn't get very far in doing that, but his followers have been obsessed with the idea ever since. Steve Forbes ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000. His Big Idea was a flat income tax, a Bad Idea. It didn't help he was a lousy candidate. Ron Paul wanted to legalize marijuana, which lots of people said was a Bad, maybe even a Crazy, Idea. It doesn't seem quite so crazy today.
Obama came to office with one Big Idea -- health care for everyone, something most advanced nations have been providing their citizens for years. It wasn't a very original idea. Harry Truman fought for nationalized health care, but the American Medical Association (AMA) paid Whitaker and Baxter in California, the nation's first big political consulting firm, $350,000 to defeat it by stigmatizing it as "socialized medicine." The Big Idea died.
Clinton tried again, but left the details to his wife, Hillary, and she worked to put the Big Idea together behind closed doors. That was a Bad Idea.
Obama, then, achieved something of a political miracle -- he proposed what everyone now calls Obamacare and it was passed by the Congress. He signed it into law. Tea Party Republicans, the true heirs to Americans who opposed Truman's proposal, have been fighting it ever since. Obama's bIg mistake was in making a mess of its roll-out.
So Big Ideas are rare. Obama's had his Big Idea, and it worked. What's needed now are Good Ideas, and they can be as modest as they need to be. Bring American troops out of Afghanistan. Save food stamps. Fix decaying bridges and highways. Keep plugging at finding peace in the Middle East. Stand up to the Tea Party.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.