Somebody at Truthdig was pondering the gulf between rich and poor in America and, not coincidentally, thought of the 1996 State of the Union address, in which Bill Clinton “kneecapped Franklin Delano Roosevelt” by declaring that the era of big government was over:
The full line, which is awfully haunting 16 years later with record poverty and the safety net in tatters, is “The era of big government is over, but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”
Later that year, on Aug. 22, Clinton would sign the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which sounds like it was titled by George Orwell and ended the way welfare had been distributed to the poor, mostly women and children, since the 1930s.
“Welfare reform” was a plank of Newt Gingrich’s true believers in Congress. Clinton’s acquiescence and the line about big government, replayed below, were, a skeptic might say, an election year maneuver to show that the president could be tough on poor people. It worked in the sense that it helped Clinton win re-election. It failed in the sense that the welfare system is now so broken and insubstantial, some poor people don’t even bother applying.
In acquiescing to the wishes of the Gingrich gang, Clinton was indeed consigning America back to a time when citizens in need were left to fend for themselves. You can’t really have it both ways, can you?