Obama's Vision and the Constitution
In To Begin the World Anew (2003) Bernard Bailyn writes that "the founders of the American nation were one of the most creative groups to appear in world history" (page 4). They were indeed a brilliant and creative group of thinkers, often espousing conflicting opinions but finding ways to arrive at consensus. And they were inspired by the grand opportunity presented to them by history: the grand chance, for the first time in human history, to establish a nation dedicated to liberty and economic opportunity for all its people.
Where, by this same standard, would one rank Barack Obama? Certainly, Obama likes to portray himself as bold and intelligent. In 2008 he received the support of two-thirds of those young voters who like to think of themselves as members of a creative class. To those on the left, his unwavering promotion of increased spending and higher taxes seems courageous and bold. Yet a comparison of Obama with the Founding Fathers -- Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton among them -- reveals a lot about the current occupant of the White House. Obama is neither brilliant nor creative, and, as the recent budget crisis showed, he is incapable of bold leadership.
The Framers of America's Constitution were divided on many issues, and they fought to defend the interests of their individual states. Of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention, three (Gerry, Mason, and Randolph) even refused to sign. Rhode Island did not even send a delegation. But, as a group, the Framers were mature, experienced men who had played a prominent role in colonial society before arriving in Philadelphia to write our Constitution. They were men of substance, both intellectually, morally, and financially. Having risked their lives and fortunes by, in many cases, signing the Declaration of Independence and participating in the Revolutionary War, they were men who truly had "skin in the game," to use one of President Obama's favorite expressions.
By these standards, Obama is hardly a man of substance, nor does he have skin in the game. Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton were among the most brilliant and well-educated men of their day. They had read widely in science, economics, history, philosophy, and theology. All of them spoke several languages well enough to conduct affairs with France, Spain, the Netherlands, and other countries. They were thoughtful and reflective men who had not only read Montesquieu, Locke, and Smith but who could debate and write on a par with these great thinkers. They were men of character who knew that failure was not an option: if the American experiment failed, they and everyone they knew would face ruin.
The Founders were bold and creative, but they were not radicals. In fact, they were wealthy men by the standards of their day, and their vision of America's future was grounded in respect for private property rather than in redistributionist schemes designed to garner votes. They were not revolutionaries like those in France whose ambition was to overturn the fundamental institutions of society and establish a secular egalitarian state governed by the mob. They were cautious men who feared the tyranny of a strong centralized government and who were determined to establish safeguards against government intrusion. Their genius was to create a constitutional framework that would protect the rights of all citizens, but particularly of the middle class and of those who aspired to that class.
Despite great differences of region, religion, and culture, the Framers worked together to compose the greatest document ever written in the service of liberty. The constant negotiation and compromise involved resulted in extreme stress on the delegates. Thirteen delegates left the convention before the document was finished. Yet the Constitution was completed and ratified as a result of the hard work of the Founders, men who shared a common vision of America as the land of freedom and opportunity.
It is hard to say just what Obama's vision of America is or whether he has a vision at all. More often than not, his is a negative vision. From his perspective, America is wrong in so many ways that it stands in need of radical change. At the heart of this negative vision is Obama's idea that America is not a "just" nation. Obama believes that fairness demands redistribution of wealth to the point that every citizen of the United States is entitled to a middle-class standard of living as a matter of right.
This may sound like a bold and creative vision, but it is not. Obama's guiding ambition, restated innumerable times in pleas for "fairness" and "social justice," is nothing more than the familiar goal of communism: "the equal division of unequal earnings." "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," as Marx had it. There is nothing intellectually brilliant about this line of thinking. It is an appeal the most corrosive of vices, that of envy, and it is an incitement to theft, if not to thuggery and violence. Ultimately, communism is an appeal to the mob instinct to loot the wealth and possessions that others have worked to accumulate.
Frank Zappa was right when he said that, in the long run, "Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff." But he may have overlooked the fact that, in the short run, there are plenty of people who like to own other people's stuff.
That primitive instinct of living at someone else's expense is at the heart of Obama's political calculus. Whether it is called "wealth envy," "class warfare," or, more properly, "communism," the intellectual basis of Obama's thought is alien to American traditions, and it is starkly opposed to the Founders' vision of the country. It is also crude by comparison.
The American Constitution is an intricate and deeply philosophical document that bases its design of government on a profoundly original insight into the capacity of human beings for both good and evil. Obama's communist philosophy, by contrast, is merely a slavish mouthing of outworn fantasies of social equality that have been around for centuries. While the Founders appealed to their countrymen to lift their sights higher, Obama instructs them to ransack their neighbors' bank accounts.
No, Obama is not creative, intelligent, or courageous. If anything, he is a talented political hack -- one who sat at the feet of Bill Ayers, Rev. Wright, and David Axelrod, bided his time, won an open U.S. Senate seat against weak opposition, and entered the White House determined to reward his radical base, no matter what the cost to the country. That mentality may be enough to get one elected, but it does not qualify one to govern. Obama is not a very bright fellow, and what brightness he does possess seems to be serving the powers of darkness.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture.