My latest Dispatch International article is an analysis of President Obama's State of the Union address of February 12, 2013. The title my European editors gave it is, "President Obama Proposes New Constitution." An eye-catching headline to be sure -- although maybe what the president was really telling us is that he has already ratified his own new constitution and is busy enacting it.
From Dispatch International:
“Checks and balances” to be replaced by “the greater good”
WASHINGTON, D.C. President Barack Obama opened his 2013 State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress by quoting John F. Kennedy. Fifty-one years ago, JFK told assembled government leaders in the same ornate House chamber – the president’s cabinet, members of Congress, the twelve justices of the Supreme Court – that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress”.
Such rhetoric, then and now, couldn’t be more at odds with the “checks and balances” that America’s founding fathers built into the Constitution when they created three co-equal branches of government: the executive (the president), the legislative (Congress) and the judicial (the courts).
In 1962, Kennedy was addressing Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, which, one could argue, were more likely to be political (if not constitutional) partners than rivals. Today, however, Obama faces a divided Congress: a Democrat majority in the Senate but a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. In order to be “partners” in Obama’s idea of “progress”, House Republicans would have to surrender all remaining political and constitutional powers.
The presidential address that followed, in effect, laid out how they could do exactly that as President Obama ahistorically re-conceived the country’s core concepts in a manner best described as revolutionary. He further re-imagined the powers of the presidency itself.
Obama declared: “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who [sic] you love.”
Even the most rudimentary study of US history reveals the “basic bargain that built this country” was between We, the People, and the Creator, not the government. There was absolutely no quid pro quo in which government was supposed to facilitate the exchange of “hard work” for “getting ahead.” (Meanwhile, implying that homosexual union – “no matter … who you love” – has an 18th century pedigree is beyond ludicrous.) Obama, however, sets himself up as the arbiter of such a bargain. “We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” he said, underscoring this theme of widespread, unmet expectations. Meanwhile, as he put it, “corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs”.
Another item that has skyrocketed to all-time highs is the national deficit. The U.S.A. is broke. As in many European countries, the U.S. deficit ballooned as so-called entitlement spending for social welfare programs has continued to expand. Obama promised in his first SOTU address in 2009 that he would cut the deficit, then $10 trillion, in half, but over his first term in office it burgeoned to $16.5 trillion. Now, Obama is more modestly promising deficit reduction to a point of “[stabilizing] our finances”.
How? Mainly by raising taxes on “the rich” – or, as Obama called them in his address, “the most wealthy and most powerful”, and, later, “the well-off and well-connected”. In this language of class warfare, Obama depicts government redistribution of wealth through taxation as a matter of “fairness”. “Most Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” Obama said. “They know that broad-based economic growthrequires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and [raising] revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share.” (Emphasis added.)
“Fair” according to whom? “Fair” according to the president. Such powers surely defy founding American principles that limited government’s role in the affairs of citizens. Indeed, the truths Americans hold self-evident, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, bear repeating here, especially since the nation’s chief executive ignores them. They are: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Obama’s notion of government is totally different. “The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem,” he said. “They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.”
In Obama’s eyes, there is no difference between the “nation’s interests” and his own. Further, he sees the role of government as placing these interests paramount. All opposition to what he designates as the greater good is no more than party pettiness to be suppressed.
He continued: “They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”
Such collectivist notions of success naturally require a super-strong executive. And in this State of the Union there seemed to be more and, frankly, more corporatist declarations of executive action than usual. He announced the launch of several new “manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs”. He then promised multiple actions regarding “climate change”: “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
What happened to the legislative branch? What happened to We, the People? He didn’t exactly forget them. Speaking of sustainable sources of energy, he pointed out that since so much U.S. energy is “drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together”, he proposed “we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” For “greater good” is more like it.
Then, curiously, he said: “I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years.” How can that be done? How can that be measured? Suddenly, an echo of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign recurs – a point at which he railed at Americans for setting what he said was a bad example for impoverished parts of the world. As he put it then: “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times … and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK.”
Fear not: Obama last week announced “the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme [global] poverty in the next two decades”. Not to forget joblessness at home, he announced a “Fix-It-First” government project to work on 70,000 bridges in the U.S., and a public-private Partnership to Rebuild America to pay for Fix-It-First. His costly wish list continued: “high-quality preschool”, “comprehensive immigration reform”, (amnesty for illegal aliens), a boost in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00. And another executive order to strengthen cyber defenses. This may be a helpful goal, but it is a top-down directive to bring private industry under more executive control.
Such is the state of the union on entering the second Obama term – too few checks and way out of balance. One wonders if the legislative branch realizes what’s happening.