Aaron Blake writes one of the more nuanced takes on Build-It-Gate (I really don't know what to call it; taking suggestions), starting with the assumption that Republicans are mangling the quote but staying realistic about the politics.
While Obama often takes care to also say that government can’t and shouldn’t do everything and that regulations should be rolled back, for example, his message on the government’s necessary role in the economy is often the one that sticks in people’s minds.
In large part, this is because he’s talking about the role of government in a way most Democrats don’t. If you want a sense of how Democrats have handled this issue in recent years, look no further than Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” quote from 1996.
But the fuller Clinton quote, from his 1996 State of the Union address, demonstrates just how dumb this accusation actually 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. Instead, we must go forward as one America, one nation working together to meet the challenges we face together. Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both.
I believe our new, smaller government must work in an old-fashioned American way, together with all of our citizens through state and local governments, in the workplace, in religious, charitable and civic associations.
Blake's absolutely right about Democratic rhetoric, generally, and right about how Obama usually takes about individuals and government. Every liberal Democrat talks like that. You start with a preamble about how we all know government can't solve every problem, but c'mon, folks—it can solve some. Obama's typically pretty good at this tap dance. He left out the first step this time.
I'd like to be done defending the president on his grammar now, because he's probably powerful enough to do it himself. But we're spending an awful lot of time arguing whether a banal point about the force-multiplying effects of society is actually an admission of hard-core collectivism.