Nowadays, people across the political spectrum seem to want very little from Washington.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in June found that 63 percent of people think the government is doing too much, while 33 percent want it to do more. And the sentiments of independents, who typically decide close elections, generally mirrored Americans at large.
But all that could change quickly, especially if these tough times persist, with 9.1 percent unemployment, rampant foreclosures and fear of back-to-back recessions.
Against this backdrop, Obama is seeking re-election. And a 24-hour span last week showed the vastly different type of leader - and view of government - the nation will get if they choose a Republican over him.
No sooner did eight Republicans take the debate stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., than did they rail against the federal government requiring states to act a certain way, lambast Washington overreach, and argue that fewer regulations and lower taxes would compel businesses to hire again.
"They're looking for a president that will say we're going to lower the tax burden on you and we're going to lower the regulation impact on you, and free them to do what they do best: create jobs," said Perry, who has staked his candidacy on a promise to make the federal government as inconsequential as possible to people's lives.
He and the others were posturing before a GOP electorate shaped by the tea party, whose existence can be attributed in part to a disgust by citizens over the growth of government - and federal spending - under George W. Bush, a Republican, and Obama, a Democrat.
"I believe in a lot of what the tea party believes in," Romney said. "The tea party believes that government's too big, taxing too much, and that we ought to get to the work of getting Americans to work."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said Washington needs to stay out of education and health issues, claiming: "We have the best results when we have the private sector and when we have the family involved. We have the worst results when the federal government gets involved." And Texas Rep. Ron Paul opposes the federal government from having any role that isn't explicitly laid out in the Constitution.
One night later, Obama pressed Congress to immediately pass a $450 billion plan to create jobs and jolt the economy, arguing that government was at least partly responsible for fixing it, helping Americans who are hurting and upgrading the nation's crumbling roads, bridges and schools.
"This task of making America more competitive for the long haul, that's a job for all of us," he said, adding: "For government and for private companies. For states and for local communities - and for every American citizen."
He countered the pitch from conservatives and the tea party that heavily cutting government spending and eliminating a chunk of government regulations is the best solution to the economic woes, saying: "This larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own - that's not who we are. That's not the story of America."
And he reached back to history to try to prove his point.
Obama argued that its workers and entrepreneurs made America's economy great, the envy of the world. But he also noted that government was responsible for the Transcontinental Railroad, the National Academy of Sciences, the first land grant colleges, the G.I. Bill, the nation's highway and air systems, the public school system, research that led to the Internet and the computer chip.
Americans will hear these competing visions of government for the next 14 months before casting a vote that will offer a glimpse into Americans views of the scope of government - a temporary clarity at best as the debate as old as our founding rages on.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Liz Sidoti, the political editor for The Associated Press, has covered national politics for the AP since 2003.