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Obama’s daunting challenge of renovating government

If there had been an empty chair at the Democratic convention this week, its ghostly occupant would have been Ronald Reagan.

Barack Obama admiringly referred to Mr. Reagan's transformational presidency during the 2008 election campaign. Then-senator Obama's take on the historical shifts in U.S. politics was absolutely right. Mr. Reagan's legacy is so powerful because he identified the state as the central issue in U.S. politics. That is still true today.

Both in Tampa, where the Republican promise was to shrink the state, and in Charlotte, N.C., where the Democrats' promise is to transform the state into a more effective servant of the middle class, the big question is what government should do, and how big it should be.

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In 2008, Mr. Obama identified the force of Mr. Reagan's leadership because he aspired to have the same impact. But the problem is that the task is both harder to do and, crucially, harder to explain.

That argument is made eloquently in a newly published essay on the Obama presidency by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor and one of the foremost U.S. political theorists. Obama and America's Political Future includes her essay and three smart responses.

Dr. Skocpol's starting point is the comparisons between Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and Mr. Obama's ambitious plans – often described as a New New Deal – that were often made at the beginning of his administration. That parallel misses one crucial historical difference: FDR built the state from scratch, while Mr. Obama is trying to overhaul a massive state machine that has existed for decades.

"The things that happened in the 1930s were unprecedented in peacetime," Dr. Skocpol told me. "That was hard, but citizens could get a sense that something new was happening. What is different for Obama is that there is a very elaborated federal apparatus that already exists."

It is the difference between a startup and turning around a big, troubled company, or, to use a more domestic metaphor, between building a brand-new house and renovating an old one.

"We know from economic and technology history – it is easier to fill a space for the first time," Dr. Skocpol said. "This is the same principle."

She describes the Obama effort as "redirecting" the state, and believes that task is difficult for many reasons. One is that change usually antagonizes vested interests; another is that, as the Obama administration has certainly shown, it often increases complexity.

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In the United States, the job of redirecting the state is further complicated by a phenomenon the author of another essay in this volume describes as the "submerged state." Suzanne Mettler, a political science professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., coined the term to describe "a whole number of public policies in the United States that are hard for people to perceive as such because of their design."

The submerged state lurks most massively in tax policy, which provides huge benefits, but ones that are largely invisible to their recipients. The result is the familiar U.S. paradox of beneficiaries of government largesse who passionately call for a shrinking of the state.

"A lot of people derive a lot of benefits from public policy, but they don't recognize that the government is assisting them, so they are less likely to support government," Dr. Mettler told me. She cited a survey she did in which only 43 per cent of respondents said they ever received help from the government. When asked about specific programs, however, 96 per cent turned out to have benefited from state largesse.

When it comes to the campaign trail, the easiest platform is a startup; Americans love the shiny new thing. Next best is demolishing something that's old and rotten.

Hardest of all is to promote a painstaking, time-consuming renovation – which is exactly what U.S. government needs and what Mr. Obama, at his best, has promised to accomplish. To succeed, he needs to understand how different his new deal is from FDR's and why his transformation is a harder sell than Mr. Reagan's was.

Mr. Obama needs the courage to remove the cloak of invisibility from the submerged state. And when it is revealed to Americans in all of its complex and inefficient glory, he needs to come up with a clear plan not to make it bigger, but to make it better.

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Editor's note: Incorrect pronouns were used in reference to Theda Skocpol in an earlier version of this article.

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