The Magazine

Madison Checks Obama

The Founders foresaw the dangers of politicians in a hurry.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By PETER WEHNER
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Barack Obama is a young president in a hurry. He is a man of preternatural self-confidence and soaring ambitions. That combination, tethered to a liberal worldview, is inflicting considerable damage upon his presidency.

Like most presidents, Obama took office intending to bend history to his liking. This impulse, while understandable, leads to overreach. In the case of Obama, it has been abetted by two significant misjudgments.

The first was following the counsel of his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who famously declared, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." The assumption being that the American public in the midst of a deep and prolonged recession yearned for government action--not just on the economy but on the environment and, especially, on health care. The Obama administration views this as a once-in-a-generation moment, plastic and rich with possibilities. It is Obama's chance to reshape the American political landscape through a series of bold initiatives.

It turns out the president reacted in precisely the wrong way to the situation he confronted. Most Americans--whose instinctive conservatism has been reinforced by the fear and uncertainty created by the financial crisis--long for stability. This argued for Obama moderating his aims; to say to the public that, in light of the economic situation he inherited, he was going to focus his energy on the economy and the exploding deficit and debt.

This is the approach that Ronald Reagan adopted in 1981. His top domestic priority was to wring "stagflation" out of the economy. He achieved that primarily through large tax cuts and sound monetary policies. Reagan understood that until he restored the economy, very little else of lasting significance could be achieved. He dropped his efforts to cut entitlements and roll back the welfare state.

The second, and in some respects more fundamental, mistake Obama has made is attempting to ram through huge changes without respect for what James Madison called the "auxiliary precautions" of American government--meaning, in the words of Martin Diamond, "the self-restraining, majority-restraining principles and institutions of the Constitution, like the separation of powers, bicameralism, limited government, all the internal checks, etc."

Because of the Founders' views on the fundamental nature of politics--that it's conducted by people who are a mixture of virtues and vices, capable of nobility and altruism but driven mostly by self-interest--they set up a system of government that slowed things down, that prized sobriety instead of radical change, that put a premium on slow turns rather than on lurching shifts in policy.

The Obama administration decided to use the economic crisis to overcome these restraints. Hence the frantic quality of its legislative agenda, demanding the stimulus package be passed even before the legislation had been read by members of Congress and that an enormously complicated health care reform be approved even before we are able to inspect and debate its particulars.

Indeed, we have had the spectacle of President Obama, a man who continually trumpets his ability to elevate our national debate, trying to forestall a thoroughgoing one in the interest of acting before his window of opportunity closes.

But Madison has thwarted others who possessed grand, even utopian, designs. And so we are now getting the debate on health care Obama desperately wanted to avoid--with the result that support for his plan is sinking like a stone in the sea. Whatever plan finally emerges, if any plan emerges, will be quite different from what Obama originally had in mind.

None of this is going down very well with our chief executive. The man who promised us a new style of politics, civil and uplifting, is now unleashing his top aides and congressional allies to "punch back twice as hard" against critics. They are attempting to paint opposition to Obamacare as the work of fringe elements, mercenaries, and automatons. If Team Obama actually believes this explains the groundswell of public concern about its health care plan, they are living in a White House even more hermetically sealed than usual.

But the fundamental problem is the Obama view of politics--romantic and even quasi-revolutionary--in which men of zeal remake the world. This is not the American way. Ours is a system of government in which, as Madison noted, "ambition must be made to counteract ambition," where there are more brakes than accelerators, and where massive overhauls and centralized control are discouraged and most of the time defeated. Whatever its limitations, the Constitution remains, in the words of Gladstone, "the greatest work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." It does not bow before a president in a hurry--even a young, charismatic, and impatient one.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.