Obama wants to seize the title deeds of American patriotism from the Reaganite Republicans. To do that, he has tried his best, following Bill Clinton’s example, to replace memories of lefty flag-burning from the Sixties with recent images of liberals’ effusively embracing flag and country and the military. After initial resistance, Obama even agreed to wear a flag pin on his lapel. God, too, gets strange new respect: Though He was booed at the Democratic convention and got admitted to the platform only by chicanery, He is mentioned six times in Obama’s second inaugural (seven, if you count a quotation from the Declaration of Independence).
For the strategy to work, Obama must, however, redefine patriotism and its object. Accordingly, he began his inaugural address with a prominent quotation from the Declaration’s most famous sentence. This was not primarily a gesture of civic solidarity. It was his way of reinterpreting American principles, of staking out new territory for the familiar words “equality” and “liberty,” which he proceeded to redefine in the rest of the speech.
This is an old liberal parlor trick. Into the magic hat goes a fluttering canary; presto chango, out comes a fat, complacent rabbit. Several commentators (especially Scott Johnson at Powerline) have already exposed the president’s sleight of hand. But for sheer audacity, it’s hard to beat the ideas juxtaposed and equated in this speech’s couple of thousand words.
To put it briefly: Obama began by saluting “the enduring strength of our Constitution” (not its wisdom or justice) and affirming “the promise of our democracy,” meaning the country as it will be, the America of our imagination, which to a modern liberal is the only thoroughly justifiable object of patriotic sentiments. Then he quoted the great sentence from the Declaration that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . ” One sentence later — one sentence! — and the Declaration was in the rearview mirror and we were off on “a never-ending journey” to “bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.”
At least those foundational “words” seemed to have a meaning, or to have once had one. Because a short half-page later, Obama explains that “our purpose” is “what the moment requires” and that it is doing what the moment requires that “will give real meaning to our creed.”
So now the meaning of the Declaration’s solemn propositions seems to come entirely, or almost entirely, from our own needs, preferences, and choices. Only urgent and imperative actions such as fighting climate change and protecting entitlements “will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.” The fathers’ Declaration, though perhaps meaningful to them in their age, is empty and meaningless in ours until we fill it up with our own values. The “timeless spirit” of the Founding obligates us to follow the changing spirit of our times — always as interpreted by liberals, of course.
Thus “equality,” which for Lincoln meant the recognition of our equal humanity and therefore equal freedom, means for Obama the compulsory redistribution of wealth. “Liberty,” in turn, transforms into the right to live out the lifestyle of our choice, free from others’ offensive remarks, and with federal subsidies as necessary or demanded.
Even as the Declaration’s original meaning fades, so does the Constitution’s. Toward the end of the speech, Obama mentioned that the oath of office he had taken that day “was an oath to God and country,” not so different from the oath a new citizen or a soldier takes. Actually, though all these oaths are sworn before God, they are properly speaking oaths to support the Constitution. The presidential oath is emphatic, and distinctive, in that regard. He alone (unlike new citizens or soldiers) swears to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Obama overlooked the main element of his own oath, which is not so surprising given his allegiance to the living constitution, which is rather different from the written one.
The galling thing is that his efforts to rewrite the American political tradition may succeed. Franklin Roosevelt’s similar project not only worked, but worked so well that for two generations New Deal Democrats dominated American elections, remade American government, and reinterpreted our Constitution almost at will. Obama is no FDR, but then he doesn’t need to be. Liberalism has already done a great deal to define democracy downward.
Where are the Republican politicians, the conservative statesmen, who will dedicate themselves to opposing, and reversing, this latest installment of the corruption of our republican principles and institutions? By now, all the usual arguments about the bad economy and our burgeoning debt have been exhausted. The usual electoral stratagems urged by the usual GOP consultants have been tried and have failed. It will take uncommon political intelligence and virtue, not to mention good luck, to rescue our free government.
— Charles R. Kesler is author of I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.