President Obama’s second inaugural address invoked our founders and the Declaration of Independence early and often. That is the good news. The bad news is that he so twisted the meaning of the principles he referred to that their meaning was reversed. America was founded on the notion that governments were instituted among men to secure certain unalienable rights. Those rights were understood as negative rights in that they restricted the government from interfering in certain God given rights like Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Since such rights did not come from government, then government did not have the legitimate authority to violate those rights. This was not understood in the European sense of positive rights where the government is obligated to provide people’s needs and wants. Such a an expansive view of the role of government was explicitly rejected by our founders as a danger to liberty, Obama re-defines our founding principles in just such a way in his speech. Check out this National Review article by Rich Lowery:
He began and ended with the Founding Fathers and threaded the Declaration of Independence throughout. This gave the speech a conservative sheen. He used the words “timeless,” “ancient,” “lasting,” and “enduring.” He sounded like Republican senator Marco Rubio in invoking “what makes us exceptional,” namely “our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”
But this framing of the speech only served to amplify the ambition of President Obama’s larger political project. He hopes to reorient the American mainstream and locate conservatives outside it. He wants to take the Founders from the Right and baptize the unreconstructed entitlement state and the progressive agenda in the American creed.
In Obama’s telling, the high points of our national life are found in collective action, in the growth of government, in teachers trained and roads built. “Now, more than ever,” he declared, “we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
He presented his agenda as the logical consequence of the Declaration of Independence’s enunciation of the equality of all men and our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Obama, that means equal-pay legislation, gay marriage, and amnesty for illegal immigrants. He included a long passage on the necessity of fighting climate change with transformative energy policies. “That’s what will lend meaning,” he said, “to the creed our fathers once declared.” (One wonders what Thomas Jefferson would have made of the argument that his handiwork is meaningless absent federal subsidies for the likes of Solyndra.)
According to President Obama, entitlements like Medicare and Social Security don’t merely represent a necessary safety net for the vulnerable. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great,” he maintained, in a highly imaginative interpretation of these programs.
The problem with this reinterpretation of the founders’ view of rights is that he knows better. Here is an exerpt of a discussion he had with a caller on a Chicago radio station from before he was President (The origianl clip that this quote was taken from is no longer there, but here is a similar one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jr9mLB3yKs):
But,” Obama said, “The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent, as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it’s been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that, generally, the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted.
Obama added, “one of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways, we still stuffer from that.”
In short, Obama knows that the founders’ view of rights constrained the role of governemnt, he just thinks that such contraints are a bad thing that the courts should have “broke free from.” Since the courts did not break free from such consrtaints, the goal now is to “put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.” He really does not care if such “redistributive change” is compatible with our constitution as long as “coalitions of power” can be created to push this agenda through.