Democrats are tapped to ride to the rescue, but this has largely been more a matter of throwing out the rascals than of empowering action.
The two 20th century exceptions have been FDR and LBJ. The New Deal and the Great Society were bold, progressive movements, but they were achieved only as a result of disaster -- in the first case, a convulsive Depression; in the second, the assassination of JFK.
So why hasn't our great recession, another deep convulsion, created an equally effective cry for government activism?
The need for the Democratic cavalry to clean up the Republican mess could hardly seem clearer. And that was precisely why Barack Obama was elected: to act boldly. But no sooner did he enter office than the old chants of fearfulness reverberated across the country: An economic rescue would only ratchet up the deficit; the regulation of Wall Street would destroy Wall Street; health care reform would result in socialism. Or so people feared.
What happened to our resolve? Nothing really. Americans just reverted to form.
It's easy to blame Republicans and their long, relentless campaign asserting that any action besides cutting taxes is dangerous, and one wouldn't be entirely wrong to do so. Rank-and-file Democrats, after all, still tell pollsters they would opt for a bolder stimulus package and more extensive health care reform. "It's just those damn Republicans (and Bluedog Dems) who wouldn't let these two things happen."
But the Republicans' and the tea partyers' successes only underscore how much of the nation is terrified by any action whatsoever. For better or worse, Americans are a timorous bunch who, rather sadly, only press their government to act when they think national security is at stake. That's how Eisenhower sold the interstate highway system, how LBJ sold Vietnam and how George W. Bush sold the Iraq war. When we aren't defending ourselves, American government just can't seem to muster a consensus to do much of anything.
In the end, our history tells us that the New Deal and the Great Society were essentially aberrations in the larger American saga of governmental timidity. Only occasionally has the fear of not doing something outweighed the national inclination not to act.