I think it would be a serious mistake to ignore or fail to attend closely to President Obama’s second inaugural address. It speaks to his ambition, his assault on the founding principles, and his attempt to realign the electorate on a misreading or misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the meaning of the founding principles. Attention must be paid. See, e.g., Yuval Levin’s “Obama’s second inaugural.”
As R.J. Pestritto has demonstrated, the intellectual roots of modern American liberalism lie in Woodrow Wilson’s assault on the ideas of natural rights and limited government. They eventuate in an administrative state and rule by supposed experts. Obamacare represents something like the full flowering of modern liberalism.
Wilson’s expressions of disapproval are the precursor to Barack Obama’s disdain for the Constitution and the Warren Court. Obama perfectly reflected Wilson’s views in his 2001 comments on the civil rights movement and the Supreme Court. In the course of the famous radio interview Obama gave to WBEZ in Chicago, Obama observed that the Warren Court had not broken “free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties.” To achieve “redistributive change,” the limitations of the Constitution would have to be overcome by the Court or by Congress.
Franklin Roosevelt touted welfare state liberalism in the “second Bill of Rights” that he set forth to Congress in his 1944 State of the Union Address. “Necessitous men are not free men,” Roosevelt asserted, and enumerated a new set of rights, among which were the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation, the right of every family to a decent home, and the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
Implicitly arguing that the teaching of the Declaration had become obsolete, Roosevelt asserted: “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”
Now comes Obama to give us progressivism and welfare state liberalism falsely staked on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Elsewhere Obama has frankly rejected the concept of “absolute truth” as inconsistent with democracy. In his second inaugural address, however, Obama places the Declaration’s “self-evident truths” up front and seems to place his stamp of approval on them, so long as one is not paying too much attention.
In Obama’s telling, “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” have dropped out. Before you know it, devotion to the founding principles serves up the welfare state, the campaign against global warming (evolved into “climate change”), gay marriage, open borders and something to ameliorate long lines to vote. We shall overcome.
While Woodrow Wilson gave us “the living Constitution” — the Constitution unmoored from its ascertainable meaning and constraints — Barack Obama gives us a living Declaration of Independence. Those self-evident truths are an evolving thing. Borrowing from the preamble to the Constitution, Obama rattles off some of the articles of the progressive creed vintage 2013:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. (Applause.) For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. (Applause.) They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great. (Applause.)
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. (Applause.) Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.
The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared….
And so on. Obama later hints at the postmodern nature of his treatment of the issues:
Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
If one takes the right to liberty seriously, it would be important to determine that the required action does not conflict with or undermine it. Obama does not take the founding principles seriously. His devotion to them serves a rhetorical purpose. Almost anticipating Obama’s second inaugural address, Charles Kesler has written:
His understanding of the past…pays lip service to such things as self-evident truths, original intent, and first principles but quickly changes the subject to values, visions, dreams, ideals, myths, and narratives. This is a postmodern “move.” We can’t know or share truth, postmodernists assert, because there is no truth “out there,” but we can share stories and thus construct a community of shared meaning. It’s these ideas that mark his furthest departure from old-fashioned liberalism.
More and less radical, more and less nihilist—Obama comes in on the “less” side, but then a little bit of nihilism goes a long way. “Implicit…in the very idea of ordered liberty,” he writes in The Audacity of Hope, is “a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.” There is no absolute truth—and that’s the absolute truth, he argues. Such feeble, self-contradictory reasoning is at the heart of Obama’s very private and yet very public struggle with himself to determine whether there is anything anywhere that can truly be known, or even that is rational to have faith in. Anyone who believes, really believes, in absolute truth, he asserts, is a fanatic or in imminent danger of becoming a fanatic; absolute truth is the mother of extremism everywhere.
Obama’s living Declaration stands in conflict with the real Declaration, the Declaration of our history. We recall that Abraham Lincoln’s argument with Stephen Douglas also came down to a disagreement over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln articulated this disagreement with special gusto in his critique of Douglas on July 10, 1858.
According to Douglas, the teaching of the Declaration had no general applicability beyond the immediate situation that confronted the Founding Fathers. Restating Douglas’s argument, Lincoln asked “in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form.” This is certainly one of the questions that is raised in acute form by the doctrine of welfare state liberalism.
The economic “rights” asserted by Roosevelt in his second Bill of Rights and by Obama in his appropriation of the principles of the Declaration differ and conflict with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness asserted in the Declaration. They are claims on the liberty of others. If I have a right to medical care, you must have a corresponding duty to supply it. If I have a right to a decent home, you must have a duty to provide it.
The argument for the welfare state belongs in the same family as “the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden.” That’s Lincoln again.
Lincoln memorably derided the underlying principle as “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” It is also the principle that underlies Obama’s living Declaration.