New York Times political columnist Matt Bai argues that the uproar about TSA scanning and groping reflects a broader discomfort with big government—an attitude that the Obama administration does not understand. As much as I'd like to believe that's true, there is a crucial flaw in Bai's reasoning: Like Sean Wilentz, author of The Age of Reagan: 1974–2008 (which Bai cites), he glosses over the striking continuities between the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom have substantially expanded the size of government in almost every area. So while Bai is right that Obama's victory and the Democratic takeover of Congress did not signal an endorsement of big-government liberalism (contrary to the wishful thinking of many Democrats), that is partly because the Republican Party voters rejected, as represented by George W. Bush and his congressional accomplices, embodied big-government conservatism, in many ways indistinguishable from the alleged alternative.
In terms of spending on regulation, education, expanded health care entitlements, stimulus schemes, and bailouts of banks and automakers (not to mention two wasteful wars), Bush led the way for Obama. And lest we forget, the Transportation Security Administration, whose mindless requirements and ritual humiliations are the hook for Bai's column, was created on Bush's watch, along with various other liberty-infringing anti-terrorism measures that Obama has continued or expanded. Bai says the "the administration's surprise" at the intensity of anti-TSA sentiment "seems to indicate that it still doesn't quite get what the debate is really about." Bai's reality-defying assumption that Democrats stand for more government while Republicans stand for less seems to indicate that Obama is not the only one who misunderstands the debate.