The Magazine

The Stakes Are High

The threat of Obama’s second term.

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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This is perhaps the most lucid, even-handed, and convincing examination to date of the threat that President Obama—and his potential reelection—poses to our republic. No one who reads I Am the Change will come away thinking this election is about the economy. In truth, this election pits America’s founding principles against Obama’s efforts to transform them. Obama noted as much in October 2008, declaring in a rare moment of candor, “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Kesler cautions: “Those words mean this will be a different country when he’s finished with it”—“a new land.”

The high-water mark of hopey-changeyness

Senator Obama, in classical setting, accepts the Democratic presidential nomination

Corbis

Professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, Charles R. Kesler says that Obama “is playing a long, high-stakes game, and it’s not at all clear he’s losing.” He writes that unless Obama’s centerpiece legislation, Obamacare, is repealed, “his staggering victory” in imposing it will have “earned him a future place on the Mount Rushmore of liberalism, alongside those other supreme hero-statesmen of the creed, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson.” Kesler knowledgeably and engagingly traces the history of modern American liberalism, bookending it with an outstanding discussion of Obama and his efforts to thrust it “forward.” The movement has twice changed names, from “Progressive” to “liberal” (after Progressivism had largely been discredited), and back. Kesler writes that “it’s an odd sort of ‘progress’ [for liberalism] to go back to a name it surrendered 80 years ago.”  Still, progressives have always maintained the inevitability of progress, starting in earnest when Woodrow Wilson was elected president a hundred years ago, in 1912.  

More than any other president to date, Wilson waged something of a frontal assault on the American Founders. He had little regard for the Constitution or its protections—the separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism—against consolidated power, and hence tyranny. He regarded the Founders as simpler men, from a simpler time, who frankly had gotten it wrong. Government shouldn’t be limited; it should be emancipated—and empowered.  

Wilson generally failed to convince Americans that the Founders had been wrong, which limited his ability to advance the liberal agenda. But Franklin Roosevelt had far greater success. As Kesler once put it when speaking at a conference, by avoiding a frontal assault on the Founders, FDR took one step backward to take two steps forward. Roosevelt conveyed that the Founders had gotten things right—for their time. Their assertion of unalienable, God-given rights was correct; it just needed to be supplemented with new (government-given) “rights.” This sounded fine, Kesler said, if one didn’t look too closely at the details; those who did would see that these new “rights” were inevitably provided at the expense of unalienable rights—particularly the right of property, but also of liberty. After all, if you have a “right” to, say, health care, then someone else has a corresponding duty to treat you—and pay for it.  

But Roosevelt consciously glossed over this difficulty, repeatedly using language reminiscent of the Founding. He had the 1936 Democratic platform read like the Declaration of Independence. (“We hold this truth to be self-evident—that twelve years of Republican surrender to the dictatorship of a privileged few  .  .  .”) And he subtly tweaked the Founders’ words: Government’s duty “to secure” the right to “the pursuit of Happiness” became government’s duty “to promote the safety and happiness of the people.” But securing a right and promoting a result aren’t quite the same thing.  

As Kesler notes, FDR particularly tried to enlist Thomas Jefferson as a symbolic ally, putting his image on the nickel and building and dedicating the Jefferson Memorial. Yet one Jefferson quote found in that memorial’s basement (where the quotes weren’t chosen during the Roosevelt administration) crystalizes their differences: “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.” That’s not something you’d hear from Wilson, FDR, or Lyndon Johnson—or Obama.

Kesler’s readers will be struck by how much Obama has learned from Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, and how little he has learned from Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln. True, Obama’s “rare combination of Ivy League degrees and Chicago street cred, of high-sounding post-partisanship and hard-core partisanship” often “leaves people guessing.” Kesler notes his “soothing and disingenuous language,” and writes, “Notice how craftily .  .  . Obama shifts his examples of social duty from picking up the fallen to sending someone else’s kids to college.” 

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