By Scott Rasmussen
Americans are pragmatic, not ideological.
That simple fact explains the growth of federal power following World War II. It also explains why President Obama's health care law will spur a reversal of that trend.
The growth in federal power got started in the New Deal era, but the decisive event took place on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
"Never before or since has America been so unified," according to historian Craig Shirley. "There were virtually no Americans against their country getting into World War II after the unprovoked attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor." In that unity, and in a desire to preserve the nation, Americans trusted their government as never before or since.
Shirley's book, "December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World" documents the change in a riveting day-to-day account.
Amidst a colorful description of the daily routines from a bygone era, Shirley recounts how President Franklin D. Roosevelt was swiftly authorized to do much more than expand the military and fight other armies. He was given more power than any president ever. In fairness to FDR, authorized is too tame a word. The president was expected to put all of the country's resources, private or public, to use in the war effort.
Before it was over, Roosevelt and his team ran all aspects of the American economy and life. That included banning the sale of private automobiles so that factories could build military aircraft, commandeering all raw materials needed for the war effort, censoring the media, wage and price controls, imprisoning citizens of Japanese origin, and much more.
But he won the war.
His successor, Harry Truman, began the process of winning the peace. After World War II, the U.S. enjoyed an economic boom unrivaled in history.
In short, the successful implementation of a response to Pearl Harbor gave the federal government a fair amount of credibility and a large dose of goodwill. Politicians of the time, sincerely convinced that a larger government would be good for the economy and the nation, seized the moment. In a clean break from America's history, Congress quickly declared that the federal government would instantly assume responsibility for managing the economy.
As long as the economy kept rolling along, nobody complained.
By the 1960s, however, the next generation of politicians was well along the way to squandering the good will and credibility it had earned.
Politicians of the '60s still dreamed of an ever-growing government role in running the country. Most of those in power remembered the heady days of World War II when the government ruled every facet of American life. They wanted such power for themselves.
But American voters didn't share the enthusiasm. Most were willing to accept a bigger role for the government than their parents and grandparents had, but there were limits. When the economy stumbled and the Vietnam War divided the nation, faith in government faded.
President Obama hoped to restore that faith so that voters would believe in government solutions as much as they did after Pearl Harbor. But pragmatic voters are more interested in reality than rhetoric. The failed implementation of Obama's health care law will leave the nation skeptical of central government solutions for decades to come.