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02.27.09

America Will Never Be Europe

Obama can expand health care. He can even nationalize the banks. But the BBC’s Katty Kay says that won’t even come close to making us the European-style state Americans abhor.

President Obama’s first budget includes a bold downpayment on universal health coverage. I would say it was expensive but these days another $634 billion simply gets lost in the slew of spent zeroes. It is, however, another symptom of what’s being called the Europeanization of America.

It is in vogue these days to suggest that the Atlantic is shrinking. Like the ice floes of Antarctica, the ocean dividing the US from the EU appears to be a disappearing victim of global economic change. Whatever the White House says publicly, American banks will be restructured, the latest euphemism for nationalized. Government is growing and spending and taxing.

Most Europeans still enjoy universal government-funded health coverage. It’s often imperfect but it’s a system they can’t imagine swapping for the U.S. version. Tony Blair was re-elected three times on the promise of expanding Britain’s social services, not contracting them. And President Nicolas Sarkozy has found shrinking the role of the government in France’s daily life harder than he anticipated. As for outlawing that gloriously anachronistic but rather desirable French 35-hour work week, not possible. Even under Obama, America will never go as far Europe, but critics of Europe’s economic system worried that Thursday’s budget was another step in that direction.

Americans will continue to fill their churches, reject gun-control legislation, uphold the death penalty, and frown at naked toddlers on beaches.

What’s remarkable, however, is how little the American public really seems to mind this shift. Republican objections that the Obama administration is simply using the economic crisis to enact an agenda of liberal welfare expansion are falling on ears more concentrated on job losses than deficits. The reason the president did so well on Tuesday night, and Governor Bobby Jindal did so poorly (delivery aside), was that Obama understood the public mood, whereas Jindal didn’t. Thirteen years ago in the same venue, President Clinton declared the era of big government over. President Obama didn’t bother to say that’s no longer true, everyone knows it. And it seems we can live with it.

Here’s why. America is not Europe and never will be Europe.

Even if the government does expand health care and takes a controlling share in some of the nation’s banks, as even a few Republicans now accept as inevitable, that doesn’t mean Americans are suddenly going to become a nation of socialists. There is something quintessentially un-American about nationalization because the American character is simply too entrepreneurial to tolerate it. Travel from America to Europe, try a bit of shopping or dinner in a restaurant, and the first thing that strikes you is the chronically lackadasical attitude to service. It’s what Brits call a “job’s worth”—as in that’s more than my job’s worth so I’m not going to lift a finger to help you—attitude. It could not be more different from the business culture here.

It is commonly reported, though never actually confirmed, that George W. Bush complained to Tony Blair that the problem with the French is that they didn’t have a word for entrepreneurial. (If it’s true, don’t we miss him for it?) Myth or not, there is substance in Bush’s critique. This nation of immigrants is more go-getting and individualist than their European counterparts. Many had to have the independence of spirit to get here in the first place and that drive has dictated their attitude to business.

From a policy point of view, America is far more likely to follow Sweden, which nationalized troubled banks in the early 1990s, cleaned up their balance sheets, and then auctioned them off again. It certainly worked better than the Japanese model, which left “zombie” banks untouched and suffered a decade of economic stagnation. But what interests me is the social difference.

Americans will continue to fill their churches, reject gun-control legislation, uphold the death penalty, and frown at naked toddlers on beaches. They will also, as soon as the economy allows, revert quickly and instinctively to a fully privately held banking system and smaller government. The Atlantic is suffering from temporary economic shrinkage, but socially, the ocean is as wide as ever.

Katty Kay covers US politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Katty is a regular contributor on Meet the Press, The Chris Matthews Show, and a guest host for the Diane Rehm Show. She is the author, with Claire Shipman, of the upcoming book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success.