What is the American idea? That all depends on whom you ask. According to President Barack Obama, it’s the notion that the federal government is the answer to America’s problems, and that through its intervention–by sheer force of spending–it can create a brighter future for all Americans.

There’s a different view, though, that has again found its voice in the past year. It’s the idea that America is at its best when its people are allowed to be free and produce, not thanks to the government or even in spite of it, but on their own merit and initiative. Yesterday, those two competing visions were on display–the former delivered in Denver by President Obama, and the latter in Washington at The Heritage Foundation by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).

In Colorado, President Obama announced his latest plan to stimulate the economy–a student loan giveaway paid for by the taxpayers. The President declared that, “When I wake up every single morning, what I’m thinking about is how do we create an America in which you have opportunity, in which anybody can make it if they try, no matter what they look like, no matter where they come from, no matter what race, what creed, what faith.” And, a few breaths later, he said that there’s only one way, only one force, that can achieve that outcome–the federal government:

So the truth is the only way we can attack our economic challenges on the scale that’s necessary — the only way we can put hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people, back to work is if Congress is willing to cooperate with the executive branch and we are able to do some bold action — like passing the jobs bill.  That’s what we need.

In an auditorium in Washington, Ryan offered a different vision of the American Idea, and it’s one that celebrates freedom and prosperity, individual achievement and opportunity:

The American Idea belongs to all of us — inherited from our nation’s Founders, preserved by the countless sacrifices of our veterans, and advanced by visionary leaders, past and present.

What makes America exceptional — what gives life to the American Idea — is our dedication to the self-evident truth that we are all created equal, giving us equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that means opportunity.

Ryan said that it is in times like these, when America is struggling with unemployment and businesses are closing, that the American Idea is in jeopardy, that “America’s commitment to equality of opportunity is called into question.” Unfortunately, he explained, President Obama is responding to these challenges by giving in to the temptation of exploiting fear and envy by embracing petty and trivial rhetoric, avoiding making tough decisions on spending and the debt, and by attempting to score cheap political points instead of building consensus:

Instead of appealing to the hope and optimism that were hallmarks of his first campaign, he has launched his second campaign by preying on the emotions of fear, envy, and resentment.

This has the potential to be just as damaging as his misguided policies. Sowing social unrest and class resentment makes America weaker, not stronger. Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country — corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless.

Ryan points to the President’s policy decisions as evidence of damaging class warfare: higher taxes on the “rich” to pay for more failed stimulus spending; the EPA’s punishment of disfavored yet commercially competitive sources of energy, while doling out cash to politically favored alternatives; the National Labor Relations Board threatening hundreds of jobs by suing a company for politically motivated reasons; and granting Obamacare waivers to politically connected firms and unions, all while the rest of America wonders whether they will lose their health care coverage.

All of this, Ryan says, points America toward a future where equality of outcome is favored over equality of opportunity, and where “a class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.”

In the House, Ryan has helped lead Congress to pursue a series of policies that promote an American Idea far different than the President’s. It involves spending within our means, reforming the tax code, and enacting meaningful entitlement reforms. Meanwhile, he points out, it has been more than 900 days since the President’s party has passed a budget in the Senate. Yet still we hear the steady drumbeat from the White House calling for more taxes and spending–none of which has mustered support within either chamber in Congress.

While the President crosses the country, America is at a crossroads. Should it head toward bigger government in the fruitless pursuit of equal outcomes or restrain government so that equal opportunity can flourish? For the sake of the American Idea that the Founders envisioned, let’s hope our leaders make the right choice.

Watch the full video and read the full text of Ryan’s speech at Foundry.org.

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