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.”
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 He writes that unless Obama’s centerpiece legislation, Obamacare, is repealed, “his staggering victory” in imposing it will have “earned him a future place on the Mount Rushmore of liberalism, alongside those other supreme hero-statesmen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.”
But Obama’s agenda is anything but commonplace. It’s highly ambitious and aims at supplanting, rather than embracing, a Founding that he has never really tried to understand. Writes Kesler:
Returning, say, to Lincoln’s and the Founders’ own understanding of themselves, reconsidering their arguments for the Declaration’s principles, never occurred to him as a serious possibility.
Kesler highlights a passage from Obama’s The Audacity of Hope (2006): “Implicit . . . in the very idea of ordered liberty,” writes Obama, is “a rejection of absolute truth.” Yet the Declaration places absolute truths at the core of the American creed (“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”). In marked contrast, Obama—who, when reciting the Declaration’s language as president, has repeatedly omitted its reference to our Creator as the source of our rights—says, “Lincoln, and those buried at Gettysburg, remind us that we should pursue our own absolute truths.” Kesler replies, “Our own absolute truths? Those words ought to send a shudder down Americans’ constitutional spine.”
Martin Luther King certainly believed in absolute truths, as his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” attests. Likewise, King thought the Declaration and the Constitution should be celebrated; the problem was that we hadn’t lived up to those documents’ lofty ideals. Obama, however, views our founding documents as having been fatally flawed from the start. This partly explains why apologies for America roll so easily off his tongue.
If it’s not a self-evident truth that governments are instituted to secure certain unalienable rights, as the Declaration says, then what exactly is government’s proper role? In the spirit of his liberal forefathers, Barack Obama believes government’s purpose is to bequeath rights—the more, the better. Kesler describes this as “the First Law of Big Government: the more power we give the government, the more rights it will give us.”
All of which brings us to Obamacare, the current pinnacle of what Kesler calls modern American liberalism’s “authoritarian streak.” He writes:
The more one ponders [Obama’s] electoral, policy, and longer political agenda, the more the health care bill stands out as the centerpiece of the whole political enterprise. Stop it . . . and you have a good chance of stopping the transformation he seeks. Fail, or worse don’t even try, and you permit what can be called, without exaggeration, gradual regime change at home. For the health care question involves . . . nothing less than the form of government and the habits and character of the American people.
Invoking Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning that in a democracy in which “administrative centralization” takes root, “a more insufferable despotism [will] prevail than in any of the absolute monarchies of Europe,” Kesler conveys the grave danger Obamacare poses to liberty. Highlighting its “vagueness, incompleteness, and amorphousness,” and the “breathtaking power” it would delegate to unelected officials, he writes, “This new kind of statute—one hates to call it law—is not meant to be ‘a settled, standing rule,’ as John Locke defined law.” Rather, it is “deliberately . . . left vague so as to give maximum discretion to the unholy trinity of bureaucrats, congressional staffers, and private--sector ‘stakeholders’ who will flesh out the act with thousands of pages of regulations (9,000 and counting so far).”
In other words, Obamacare represents the triumph of the arbitrary rule of man over the fixed rule of law. (Witness all of the Obamacare waivers already issued.) Adds Kesler: “Obamacare is an excellent test case for how the original U.S. Constitution is faring against the living constitution.”
A young Abraham Lincoln, contemplating what dangers could threaten our form of government, said, “It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us . . . [and] seek the gratification of their ruling passion. . . . The question then is, Can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others?” If not, then “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”
In other words, if our citizenry plays its part well, our form of government could still prevail against this onslaught of ambition. And if Obamacare is repealed, Kesler writes, “Obama’s legacy and his claim to leadership will lie in ruins.”
As we approach a nation-defining election, Charles R. Kesler has produced a timely and exceptionally well-written book, full of insight, erudition, and wit. It’s a must-read for swing-state independents still open to persuasion, for conservatives of all stripes—and for liberals interested in honestly examining the intellectual underpinnings of their political faith.
Jeffrey H. Anderson is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.