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President Obama has spoken at two memorial services in the span of a week. Last Thursday for victims of the Boston Marathon attacks, and yesterday for those who died in the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. In both speeches, he focused on victims and survivors. But NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that other Democrats are using these events to talk about the role of government.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The day after the Boston explosions, while thousands of investigators were searching for evidence, retired Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts told MSNBC, there's a lot we still don't know, so let's talk about what we do know.
BARNEY FRANK: Let's be thankful that we have spent a lot of tax money to build up the capacity to do this.
SHAPIRO: Frank argued that the police, FBI agents and others in Boston make a strong case for what is often derided as big government.
FRANK: You know, it's very fashionable these days for people in my former line of work to brag about how they cut government, reduced government. Well, I'm glad that they weren't as successful as they wanted to be.
SHAPIRO: Some liberals made a related argument when explosions and fire killed a dozen people in Texas. They said government regulations exist to prevent those kinds of disasters from happening. Dean Baker directs the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.
DEAN BAKER: The point is government actually does something, and this makes it very concrete. It's the job of government inspectors to look into, certainly, fertilizer factory - we know these are dangerous places - to look at them and make sure that companies are following good safety procedures so that you don't get explosions like that.
SHAPIRO: People who want smaller government say liberals are reaching the wrong conclusions from these events.
JAMES CARAFANO: We always have to be careful about trying to childproof the country.
SHAPIRO: James Carafano is a security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
CARAFANO: It's always bad to make public policy off a single tragedy, particularly when you're talking with chemical facilities. If your answer is, I never want to have a chemical fire or incident, then you might as well not have a chemical industry.
SHAPIRO: And conservatives argue that while government regulations might prevent some disasters, they also impose a real burden on innocent people and businesses every day. Onkar Ghate is with the Ayn Rand Institute and says regulations add to overhead.
ONKAR GHATE: They impose an enormous cost on companies and all individual Americans of the amount of paperwork and regulations that you have to go through when you're not doing anything wrong.
SHAPIRO: These disagreements about the role and the size of government are as old as the country. They were a central issue in last year's presidential campaign. Mitt Romney often said that, if elected, he would unshackle American business by getting government out of the way.
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MITT ROMNEY: The era of big government will really be over.
SHAPIRO: President Obama often says the government is us - the schools, roads, and research centers - that help the country thrive. Here he was in Osawatomie, Kansas.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a nation, we've always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed.
SHAPIRO: This ideological split came into focus again this week, as Congress revisited the spending cuts known as the sequester. Lawmakers created these cuts as part of an effort to shrink the government. This week, people got upset when air traffic controller furloughs led to long flight delays. So today Congress undid that part of those cuts. An earlier exception had been made for meat inspectors as well. Neera Tanden is with the progressive Center For American Progress.
NEERA TANDEN: We have been fed a narrative or an argument or a story that the government can't do anything right. And what's been interesting about the sequester is that people are beginning to pay attention to the fact that there are ways in which the government has a positive role and we don't like that role to be taken away.
SHAPIRO: Polls consistently show that people want less government spending. Polls also show that people don't want the government to cut back on specific services. The tug-of-war between the parties is all about reconciling these two deeply held, mutually exclusive desires. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.
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