Abroad, America’s greatest source of strength has always been our ideals. The same is true at home. We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; that if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.
–President Barack Obama, 2010 State of the Union Address
All presidencies have bad as well as good times. Increasingly, Presidents in their second terms are considered “lame ducks” from the get-go on account of the fact that they cannot run for a third term. In addition, the world has become both bigger and scarier and smaller and less liable to being kept at arm’s reach now that Cold War coalitions have broken down and guerilla warfare and religious strife have replaced the stabilizing influence of nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction. What is more, the increasingly partisan nature of our political life and Congress in particular make policymaking and implementation all but impossible. Oh, and the federal government has become too large for any one person to control. And my dog ate my homework.
That last one is just me. The other excuses, in varying terms and tones, and with the addition of rather ugly charges of racism, are being offered from the Obama cheering section as his presidency collapses. So, why has President Obama been such a phenomenal failure? More or less by design—bad design, that is.
First of all, we should not forget that Mr. Obama succeeded in one great transformative policy to which he dedicated himself from day one: by hook, crook, and false promise (“you will be able to keep your health plan”) he established state-mandated healthcare. And we may never get rid of this final piece of the Rube Goldberg machinery of social democracy.
President Obama’s health system is a failure, of course. The people hate what he has built and recognize that it is costing them far more than he claimed, limiting their choices in ways he promised it wouldn’t, and generally undermining healthcare nationwide. President Obama got what he wanted; it just turns out that it really stinks.
Indeed, it seems clear that President Obama’s failures in general are the inevitable outcomes of his successes—of policies he instigated on purpose. He is quite literally reaping what he sowed.
Of course, Mr. Obama’s supporters do not see things this way; they believe that profligate spending, hyper-regulation at home, and a combination of military abdication and “nation-building” abroad would bring paradise on earth, if only “bad people” would stop getting in the way. This is pure fantasy, of course, but that is the point. Obama Administration policies, like Obama Administration ideology, are far divorced from the realities of human nature and the limitations of even the most smug, self-satisfied—pardon me, “brilliant” and “caring”—minds to manipulate.
All this brings to mind President Obama’s State of the Union Address from 2010. Long before the abject failure of his administration had become apparent, he made clear his disengagement from reality—even the very basic, constitutional reality he once was considered competent to teach at a prestigious law school. Mr. Obama stated that “the notion that we are all created equal” is a “promise enshrined in our Constitution.” Commentators are well advised to tread lightly, here. Americans have become quite enamored of the ideal of equality, and certainly the notion that “no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it” has a great deal of truth to it, as embodied in the Constitution’s demand that no citizen be denied “equal protection of the laws.” Note, of course, that this does not say that we all have some intrinsic right to be “protected’ by the law as Mr. Obama claimed. Equality is not, at least in our Constitution, a code word for “government support.” Sometimes you have to protect yourself because there is no law on-point, and some laws are there to punish you for mistreating others.
More troubling is President Obama’s claim “that if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.” What are those values, exactly? What is the price to be of not sharing them? Does this mean that my values may disqualify me from equal treatment under the law, even if I abide by the law? Such questions seem highly relevant in our current era of increasing intolerance for religious believers in particular and from an administration that uses the IRS and Justice Department to harass opponents.
Most damning, however, is the unspoken assumption of this passage, namely that we can treat the Constitution as the source of everything we happen to like. To begin, in speaking so broadly about equality Mr. Obama is conflating the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. This is not an uncommon mistake, though one might expect better from a former teacher of Constitutional Law. The real problem is that this kind of sloppy conflation of the sources of good things encourages people to see general principles (“all men are created equal”) as by nature, necessarily and directly applicable under the Constitution.
The Constitution does not contain all good things. It is a frame of government, binding our rulers to the rule of law. This is a very important good thing, protecting us against arbitrary power, and without which no other good things in politics will be possible over time. But some of the rules the Constitution contained at its drafting were not, in fact, good. One thinks, here, of the infamous “3/5ths rule” intended to count slaves as partial citizens for political purposes. Rules like this need to be changed; they do not need to be willed or pretended out of existence. The Constitution, moreover, remains a good thing, and was a good thing even with great flaws, because it established the rule of law.
If we demand a Constitution, or a society, that is perfect in its provision of all good things, we will lose the rule of law in pursuit of our ideological goals. Even pursuing good, important, and attainable goals may well produce conflict. When we reduce our goals to an ideological vision of equality like “all of us are equal in our right to government-funded health care” we end up harming real people’s lives and bankrupting our nation. We also end up destroying the rule of law. It will be crushed under the weight of regulations, waivers, executive orders, and other Presidential decries in a feckless attempt to make the impossible reality.
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