Obama Defends Government As A National Caretaker

With a towering federal deficit, the role of the government was always destined to be an important issue in the presidential campaign. Republican candidate Mitt Romney's decision to tap Paul Ryan — author of a proposed budget that would dramatically reduce the size of government — made it front and center. This week, President Obama has begun a systematic campaign to remind voters of just what government does and can do for them.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

At his White House briefing this week, President Obama himself took issue with Mitt Romney's welfare claim.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You can't just make stuff up. That's one thing you learn as president of the United States. You get called into account. And I feel very comfortable with the fact that when you look at the campaign we're running, we are focused on the issues and the differences that matter to working families all across America.

BLOCK: This fight over welfare underscores a fundamental difference in how the two candidates and their supporters see the role of government. While Mitt Romney suggests government is giving handouts to the undeserving, President Obama stresses more popular programs that benefit students, seniors, and frustrated commuters just trying to get to work.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama held a roundtable with schoolteachers in Nevada this morning. Like the firefighters he visited in Colorado in June, Mr. Obama sees teachers as a popular and recognizable face of what government does.

OBAMA: I see how hard you guys work. And I know that you don't do it for the money.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: You're doing it 'cause you really deeply care about these kids.

HORSLEY: Teachers in Nevada and elsewhere have seen their class sizes balloon, as cash-strapped state and local governments cut back. Mr. Obama has proposed additional federal funding to help keep more teachers on the payroll.

In Ohio yesterday, Mr. Obama talked about the larger Pell Grants and tax credits he pushed through, to make college more affordable. He calls that an investment in young people and says the benefits don't stop with them.

OBAMA: Now more than ever, your success is America's success. Because when we invest in your future, we're investing in America's future.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama campaign is build around the message that government is not just a distant tax collector, showering favors on undeserving strangers. Rather, it's the schools that teach our children and the doctors and drugs that treat our parents.

OBAMA: I have made reforms that have saved millions of seniors with Medicare hundreds of dollars on their prescription drugs.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Even the roads we drive on are a government project, Mr. Obama reminds voters. A new radio ad in Virginia warns that project could suffer under the big spending cuts proposed by Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: As usual, traffic in Northern Virginia is backed up again with long delays on 66 and 395.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Could things get any worse?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Actually, traffic and our roads could get worse with the Ryan-Romney budget plan.

HORSLEY: On the stump, Mr. Obama often tempers his speeches with a dose of modesty about what government can and can't do. And whoever is president will have to wrestle with a budget deficit that demands some combination of reduced spending and higher taxes. Still, the president pushes back strongly against the anti-government rhetoric of his GOP opponents.

OBAMA: Government can't solve every problem and it shouldn't try. And it certainly can't help folks who aren't willing to help themselves.

CROWD: Right.

OBAMA: But there are some things that we can do together as a people that makes us all better off, that makes our country strong.

HORSLEY: Every Obama rally ends with the Bruce Springsteen anthem, "We Take Care Of Our Own." Part of the president's challenge in responding to Romney's welfare attack is persuading Americans that the people government is taking care of really are our own.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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